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Van Parijs... Research at Caltech, Brigham Drawing New Scrutiny

By Kelley Rivoire

Accusations continue to swirl around work done by Luk Van Parijs, a former professor in the Biology Department and Center for Cancer Research who was fired by MIT last week for committing scientific misconduct while at the Institute. New doubts have been raised about the veracity of data in papers Van Parijs wrote prior to joining the MIT faculty in 2000, and the institutions where he did his previous work are considering investigative action.

A report of an investigation by New Scientist released Friday calls into question three papers that each have “uncanny similarities” in figures cited as coming from different sources. In a 1998 paper in the journal Immunity (Volume 8, page 265–274), clusters of dots and even outliers in graphs of flow cytometry data from different mice are practically identical. Similar questions arise in figures in a 1999 Immunity paper (Volume 11, pages 281–288) and a 1997 paper in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (Volume 186, page 1119–1128), according to the report.

Van Parijs, who admitted to fabricating and falsifying data during MIT’s investigation into his work at the Institute, did not return requests for comment, but wrote in an e-mail to New Scientist that “None of the data for the figures you mention have been falsified. I am collaborating fully with the inquiries and I cannot comment further at this time.”

A statement from Lynne Herndon, president and CEO of Cell Press, which publishes Immunity, said, “We take all scientific misconduct very seriously and we will be looking into these cases in detail before determining what actions, if any, may be necessary from the journal.”

Early this month, Caltech began looking at work done by Van Parijs while he was a postdoctoral researcher at the university, said Jill Perry, director of media relations at Caltech. The inquiry, which should be completed early November, is being conducted by Elliot M. Meyerowitz, chair of the biology division, she said. Meyerowitz began the inquiry at the behest of Caltech President and Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, also a former MIT Institute professor, in whose laboratory Van Parijs worked.

The inquiry focuses on two papers published in Immunity in 1999, Perry said. The results of Meyerowitz’s inquiry will determine whether Caltech further investigates Van Parijs’ work, she said.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Van Parijs did his graduate studies in conjunction with Harvard Medical School, where he earned his doctorate in 1997, issued a statement saying that the hospital “recently became aware of information that raised questions about the integrity of Luk Van Parijs’ research.” The hospital “has been assessing that information,” according to the statement.

Van Parijs’ doctoral adviser Abul Abbas, now head of the pathology department at the University of California, San Francisco, said that he has spoken with the hospital about Van Parijs’ work. “We’re trying to decide what to do,” he said. He said he would be “perfectly happy” if the hospital wants to investigate, but he cautioned that it would be difficult since no one involved in the work is still at the hospital, and faculty members “would have to commit some serious time.”

While there may be specific questions about work done by Van Parijs, Abbas said he believes the general conclusions are correct, as many of the results of Van Parijs’ work have since been verified by other laboratories.

Van Parijs was an “absolutely outstanding student,” with a bright future, Abbas said. “I wrote glowing letters for [Van Parijs] because he was really considered a star,” he said. “Obviously, I had no concerns about his integrity when he was in my lab.”

Abbas said he first heard about Van Parijs’ possible misconduct about a year ago when Van Parijs’ “lab was shut down rather precipitously” when MIT first heard allegations of misconduct. “Within a day, a lot of people knew” because his graduate students and postdoctoral fellows suddenly had to look to other research laboratories for work, he said.

“I have no idea what drove Luk into this,” he said.