UConn Health Center says professor falsified data

A three-year investigation has determined that a tenured UConn Health Center professor who studied the benefits of a substance found in red wine fabricated and falsified data, the health center announced Wednesday.

The university has started dismissal proceedings against Dipak K. Das, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center and a professor in the department of surgery. The health center has notified 11 scientific journals that have published studies Das conducted, froze all externally funded research in his lab and declined $890,000 in federal grants that he was awarded.

The investigation, which looked at more than seven years of work in his lab, found that Das was guilty of 145 counts of fabrication or falsification of data. Das has worked at the health center since 1984 and received tenure in 1993. He researched the beneficial properties of resveratrol, which is found in red wine.

“We have a responsibility to correct the scientific record and inform peer researchers across the country,” Philip Austin, the university’s interim vice president for health affairs, said in a statement.

Review Board

Examples of the type of manipulations Das is accused of making, prepared for illustrative purposes by the special review board. In the top example, the red boxes show images that were moved to create a separate, inaccurate “result” on the right.

The investigation began after the U.S. Office of Research Integrity notified the health center in 2008 of an anonymous allegation of research misconduct involving a paper published by the Cardiovascular Research Center. Then-academic affairs Dean Bruce Koeppen appointed a special review board composed of three health center professors and an emeritus associate vice president for research administration.

The review board’s work produced a 59,929-page report (a 49-page summary is available here). Its findings against Das centered on figures that the board concluded had been manipulated and used in published papers without disclosure.

Many of the images the review board examined were produced by western blot, a form of biochemical analysis that can detect specific proteins and depicts them as bands.

It’s accepted practice to publish a series of bands representative of an experiment that were produced together in a single western blot procedure, the report said. But in papers Das authored or coauthored, the review found that images appeared to have been manipulated to imply that the data shown came from a single experiment or procedure when that was not the case.

The report noted that splicing together segments from western blot procedures may be done if the authors describe what they did, although the practice is rare. Das’ papers did not disclose any data manipulation, the report said.

Overall, the review board found that Das committed 145 cases of research misconduct, based on having fabricated or falsified data.

Dipak K. Das

Dipak K. Das (Photo courtesy of UConn)

In a section printed in red font and underlined, the report noted that the review board’s findings represent only the most egregious cases of figure manipulation. Many figures had more manipulations but, for expediency, the review board only noted the most obvious, it said.

The review board also found information on Das’ computer suggesting that images had been fabricated or manipulated, the report said, including an image identical to one used in a paper that showed the figure was composed of multiple blots spliced together and pasted onto a blank background, not from a single strip as the publication implied.

In addition, emails between researchers in Das’ center implied, in the review board’s opinion, that image manipulation was taking place. In one, a student wrote to Das that “pictures quality have to be improved.” Another email referred to a “corrected picture.” And in one email, a student wrote to Das, “I have changed the figures as you told me.”

“The [special review board’s] findings discussed above, point to a pervasive attitude of disregard within the [Cardiovascular Research Center] for commonly accepted scientific practices in the publication and reporting of research data,” the report said.

It added that if there were only one example, or a few, of such practices, the review board members might be willing to consider that they stemmed from oversight.

“However, given the large number of irregularities discovered in this investigation, which were done over a period of several years, and in several different ways (publications, grant applications, communications with publishers) the SRB can only conclude that they were the result of intentional acts of data falsification and fabrication, designed to deceive,” the report said.

Several center staff testified that manipulations, such as erasing backgrounds or splicing and digitally altering the images, occurred, and that nothing was wrong with the practices, according to the report.

The review board also made tentative determinations about the responsibility of other lab members for the figure manipulation, but the report said that on the advice of the Office of Research Integrity and the Connecticut attorney general’s office, the preliminary findings about people besides Das were referred to the health center’s research misconduct committee.

The health center said Wednesday that there are inquiries under way about former members of Das’ lab, but no findings have been issued.

According to the report, Das said he had no knowledge of who prepared any suspect figures, but the review board did not find his statement credible. The report noted that Das was the senior author on all but one paper found to contain altered or manipulated images. In addition, it noted, some duplicated images were used to fabricate figures in multiple papers over several years, and Das was the only common author on them.

Das did not answer a telephone call to his West Hartford home and did not respond to an email request for comment. The review board’s report said he provided no substantive information that could have explained the irregularities found in the investigation.

The report included two letters from Das.

In one, written in June 2010 to a health center administrator, Das wrote that he had had a stroke with complications that prevented him from working continuously, and that it might take a year for him to even read the thousands of pages of documents on the case.

The following month, Das wrote an eight-page letter describing flaws in the investigation, touting his record in obtaining research grants, and alleging that he was the target of a conspiracy against Indians at the health center. He noted that some people who worked on papers published by his lab were not accused of wrongdoing, and that those who were accused were of Indian origin.

Das also wrote that he did not make up figures and that the reason why he was accused “is I am of INDIAN ORIGIN and a extremely powerful scientist, and the most renowned scientist in the Health Center.”

“[C]areful analysis of the entire issue leads to the conclusion that it is an entirely racial issue – war against Indian community and unfortunately I am also an Indian,” he wrote.

A health center spokesman declined to comment on Das’ allegations.

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity is now conducting an independent investigation, according to the health center.

“While we are deeply disappointed by the flagrant disregard for the University’s Code of Conduct, we are pleased the oversight systems in place were effective and worked as intended,” Austin said. “We are grateful that an individual chose to do the right thing by alerting the appropriate authorities. Our findings were the result of an exhaustive investigation that, by its very nature, required considerable time to complete.”

The Cardiovascular Research Center Das headed has been “inactive” since January 2011, according to the health center.