Harvard investigation of stem cell scientific misconduct provides insight into secretive process

When a former stem cell researcher at the Joslin Diabetes Center was found to have committed scientific misconduct last year, the report detailing her wrongdoing was brief and succinct. An investigation had revealed that Shane Mayack reused images from unrelated experiments in two scientific papers, according to a note government authorities published in the Federal Register in August.

The full report of the internal Harvard Medical School investigation on which the federal authorities based their finding has now been released to the Globe through a Freedom of Information Act request. It provides deeper insight into how this particular case of misconduct was first detected and gives a sense of how the highly secretive investigations of serious, potentially career-ending allegations unfurl.

The penalties Mayack agreed to last year were typical of how such cases are resolved: she must have her research supervised if she receives federal funding for public health research for three years and can’t serve on advisory panels, among other concessions. But the case was also unusual in some respects.

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First, it triggered the retraction of a high-profile finding that had been published in a top scientific journal, with exciting implications for anti-aging research. That retracted paper, published in Nature, had shown that exposing older mice to the blood of young mice could reverse some effects of aging. Although the paper was retracted, subsequent research supports the finding.

Second, the misconduct occurred in the laboratory of Amy Wagers, an up-and-coming scientist at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Joslin. Wagers was not involved in the misconduct, and the full investigative report clarifies any lingering questions about her role, stating, “The evidence did not suggest that Dr. Mayack lacked appropriate mentorship in conducting her research or that sloppy record-keeping was deemed acceptable, even tacitly...”

Mayack did not respond to an e-mail. She is currently listed as executive director of The Ligo Project, a nonprofit organization that is described on its website as “bridging the gap between entrepreneurship and the life sciences.” Wagers referred a reporter to a Harvard Medical School spokesman who said the school is committed to the highest ethical standards and investigates such allegations seriously.

The report, from which many details have been redacted, reveals how a panel gathered information—by conducting interviews with scientists and reviewing computer hard drives.

The problems with Mayack’s research were first suspected in spring of 2010, according to the report. An unnamed researcher was having difficulty successfully performing a technique that Mayack had reported. He began a side-by-side experiment with her to learn how to do the technique firsthand.

As part of the procedure, both scientists took a similar number of cells and put them on lab dishes to let them grow overnight.

The next day, the unnamed researcher was surprised when he saw that Mayack’s laboratory dish had more cells and looked different from his. He did not find the differing results suspicious, but “could not explain the discrepancy and found the apparent results to be inconsistent with what Dr. Mayack had previously reported,” the report states.

Then, the researcher began using Google to search for images related to the technique and discovered an image in a 2006 paper that was very similar to an image in a paper Mayack and Wagers had published in 2008.

“When he first found the image, he didn’t think anything of it, only noting that it looked similar to the image in the” 2008 paper, the report states. But with his curiosity aroused by his inability to replicate Mayack’s technique, he realized it looked like an identical image that had been rotated, which was what brought the issue to light and eventually led Harvard to form the panel.

The medical school investigative team determined that the images were identical. Mayack also admitted they were during an interview, according to the report, but said it was an innocent mistake—explaining to the panel that her filing system had caused her to accidentally misrepresent the image.

But the investigative team concluded otherwise. The report states that Mayack’s filing system was not disorganized, as she repeatedly claimed. They also found the image in question saved on her computer as it appeared in search engine results and described discovering in her PowerPoint slides a “hidden” image that was attached to the apparently copied image. That image was identical to yet another figure in the 2006 paper.

“She had no specific recollection of the [2006] Tsuang paper or of cropping and rotating the specific image in question,” the report states.

In four other instances, Mayack furnished similar explanations; not denying that figures are identical, but attributing their misrepresentation in her papers and presentations as unintentional mistakes. The panel found in each case evidence of scientific misconduct, including that various figures and images were falsified or fabricated.

In a letter written to John L. Brooks III, the president and chief executive of Joslin Diabetes Center, an unnamed spokesperson for the Harvard Medical School Standing Committee on Faculty Conduct laid out their findings.

“We find the number and pattern of discrepancies uncovered, including those that required both manipulation and rotation of cropped images, to be disconcerting,” the letter states. “Applying the federal standard of proof, we find it is more likely than not that Dr. Mayack intentionally, knowingly or recklessly committed actions that constitute research misconduct.”