September 24, 2010

More retractions from Nobelist - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences

Two prominent journals have retracted papers by Nobel laureate Linda Buck today because she was "unable to reproduce [the] key findings" of experiments done by her former postdoctoral researcher Zhihua Zou, according to a statement made by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), where Buck worked at the time of the publications.

These retractions, a 2006 Science paper and a 2005 Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) paper, are tied to a 2001 Nature paper that she retracted in 2008, due to the inability "to reproduce the reported findings" and "inconsistencies between some of the figures and data published in the paper and the original data," according to the retraction. Zou was the first author on all three papers and responsible for conducting the experiments.

The FHCRC is currently conducting an investigation into the issue, said Kristen Woodward, senior media relations manager, but no findings of misconduct have been made. John Dahlberg of the Office of Research Integrity declined to comment on the matter.

The paper in PNAS, which has been cited 61 times according to ISI, describes how smells from substances with similar molecular structures elicit "strikingly similar" neuronal patterns in the olfactory cortex of mice brains across individuals, supporting the presence of "olfactory maps" that follow "an underlying logic," according to the paper. The Science paper, cited 73 times, furthers the research and supports that mixed smells, such as chocolate and citrus, activate neurons in the olfactory cortex that chocolate or citrus do not when presented individually, which may explain why these mixtures tend to smell like completely different substances to humans.

Fortunately, the retractions will not have a large impact on the field, Donald Wilson, an olfactory researcher at New York University and Nathan Kline Institute, told The Scientist in an email. "The story of how cortical odor processing occurs doesn't change," he said. "Work in our own lab and others have now also shown the highly distributed, sparse nature of odor processing in the olfactory cortex, and the complex processes involved in dealing with odor mixtures, much as these two now retracted papers showed."

Zou was unavailable for comment, as his current location is unknown, according to FHCRC. After completing his post doctoral research with Buck at FHCRC in 2005, Zou took an assistant professor position at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. In November of 2008, however, Zou was laid off from the institution, along with 2,400 other UTMB staff members, after Hurricane Ike ripped the university apart that September, according to Raul Reyes, the director of media relations at the UTMB.

In 2008, Zou wrote in a statement provided by UTMB that he was "disappointed" by the Nature retraction, and denied any misconduct on his part. While Zou agreed to the Nature retraction, he "declined to sign" the Science retraction, as reported online today in Science. But "we have no information to suspect misconduct," Natasha Pinol, senior communications officer at the AAAS/Science Office of Public Programs, told The Scientist in an email.

In addition to the irreproducible results, the PNAS paper also contained "figures inconsistent with original data," according to the FHCRC statement. While the PNAS retraction is "not embargoed," according to Managing Editor Daniel Salsbury, the journal refused to share any information with The Scientist before deadline, noting that the retraction would appear online after 2:00 p.m. EDT this afternoon.

The research that won Buck the 2004 Nobel Prize, which she shared with olfactory researcher Richard Axel of Columbia University "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system," was unrelated to the research in the retracted papers.

Read more: More retractions from Nobelist - The Scientist - Magazine of the Life Sciences


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