A lead pancreatic cancer researcher, Thorsten Hagemann, at Bart’s Cancer Institute in London, UK, has been struck off from the UK medical register. He was reported to have fabricated his research results at 24 instances. He was charged by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Services (MPTS) with ‘gross and clear fabrication of research data’ from 2012 to 2014, after the hearing was recently held in Manchester.

Employed as senior clinical lecturer by the prestigious Queen Mary University of London back in 2013, he aimed to examine the role immune system and B-cells in pancreatic cancer patients but was soon surrounded by serious allegations. Deviating from ethical norms he kept his colleagues in oblivion about the source of his collected data, and he manipulated emails to come out clean from his deception and went on to gain research grants from the Pancreatic Cancer Fund of UK.

After initial investigation carried out by Queen Mary University, London, (QMUL) and further investigation from the tribunal, he was found guilty of fabricating research result of pre-clinical trials prior to grant approval, misleading colleagues about data collection and falsifying emails and exaggerating drug effects on mouse model for paper publication.

After completing his studies from Germany in 1999, Thorsten Hagemann was designated as a Principal Investigator (PI) in the Centre for Cancer and inflammation at Bart’s Cancer Institute, QMUL, UK. Termed at one of the most difficult cancer types to combat, only 3% of the pancreatic patients successfully live for five years or more after diagnosis. The disease largely remains misdiagnosed and by the time doctors can find the root cause of the ailment, the cancer often would have reached advance stages of metastasis.

Considering the appalling pancreatic cancer statistics, Hagemann set out to closely observe the role of newly found class of B-cells that suppressed body’s immune response against tumor cells. Prior to applying for the research fund, he showed that activation of these B-cells promoted tumor growth in animal models.

Interestingly, the researcher could easily fake results up from his pre-clinical trials and that, too, convincingly enough to have won research grant worth £180,000 in March 2013. This grant was aimed at a three-year long project titled as “Defining the role of regulatory B cells in pancreatic cancer”.

Despite the fact that concerns about his research ethics began to take ground in 2012, he was successful at winning the grant. These concerns initially surfaced when his junior colleagues questioned the authenticity of this data collection. As a result, an internal investigation was carried out on two projected which were led by him.

Role Of Funding Organizations

The Cancer Research UK’s Director Dr David Scott was informed of the misconduct and the parent organization decided to terminate the funding. He said, “”The investigation found evidence of research misconduct and Cancer Research UK terminated funding to Professor Hagemann.”

On the contrary, Maggie Blanks, chief executive of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund took notice of the development and said that the science behind the research was sound. Due to the appealing scientific ground, Ms Blanks decided that her organization would not withdraw the funding but it will now be entitled to other researcher who would work on the same project.

However, by the end of initial inquiry, Hagemann did not lose his ground easily. He denied all allegations but soon after evidence of misconduct, falsified results and emails was presented, and he was found guilty. Further investigation found that six more incidents of scientific misconduct were attributed to Thorsten Hagemann. As a result of this, Thorsten Hagemann resigned from the university in 2013 and joined a private biopharmaceutical company by the name of Immodulon as Medical Director in 2015.

At one point in the investigation, the tribunal passed a verdict that said that he had fabricated the results from scratch and no experimentation was conducted.

Flawed Research Published By A Reputed Journal

At another instance, Hagemann was found to have manipulated results of these findings, published by journal the Nature.

In the paper published on 19 June, 2014, co-authored by Thorsten Hagemann, it was found that the p110δ isoform of phosphoinositide-3-OH kinase (PI(3K), cell signaling protein has a significant role for the immunosuppressive function of regulatory T cell. This PI(3)K activity was positively correlated to the proliferation and growth of tumor cells. On the other hand, inactivation of PI(3)K helped increase the role of cytotoxic T cells against tumor cells and suppressed the tumor cell activity.

Giving hope to hundreds of pancreatic cancer patients, the research showed the above mentioned kinase isoform can be a drug target to help against tumor progression.

The tribunal said that the study findings were based on mice models but these mice were not fed with the drug, pointing at the result fabrication. The court also added that in this study, the researcher showed that the open-label Gilead drug GS-9820 was more effective than it actually was. This phase 1b trial drug is targeted towards the cancers triggered by lymphoid cells (B and T immune cells). Adding the name of a reputed pharmaceutical company may lead the case into shocking revelations in future, but to say anything at this moment is premature.

In light of this controversy, the Nature published a rectified version of the study on 28th July, 2016. In this corrigendum, Queen Mary University had notified Nature and University College London that the results of the previously published research were questionable and the findings were void. The university stated that the previously provided results and figures should be withdrawn. But they assured that an ongoing research was being carried out to revise the results.

Not surprisingly, Hagemann did not come to attend the tribunal session and completely disregarded law. Furthermore, to reflect about Hagemann, Tribunal Chairman, Richard Davis said, “Hagemman had shown callous disregard for the implications of his actions on his PhD and postdoctoral students, on his colleagues, on the institute and for patients.”

What Is The Future Of Research?

While cancer research runs at the forefront of medical research at present, strict measures of regulating research data are of utmost importance to maintain transparency. The researcher crossed all the boundaries of ethics in a pursuit to see his work successful and stigmatized his entire career. Nothing can be surely said about his whereabouts at the moment, speculations suggest that he has fled the country.

However, this particular case has left us with many unanswered questions about the research authenticity and credibility regulation by the funding bodies. These authorities are expected to take stringent screening procedures, taking away the researchers’ independence in future. It may be just one case, but the collateral damage will have negative impact on future scientific researchers who aim at helping people in good faith without having hidden motives.