3 Singapore-based scientists linked to research fraud

(From left) Prof Kambadur, Dr Sharma and Dr Lokireddy.
(From left) Prof Kambadur, Dr Sharma and Dr Lokireddy. PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM, HARVARD.EDU, PHARMA NUTRITION

NTU professor's posts terminated; another don no longer with NUS; ex-NTU researcher's PhD revoked

Their research was hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against killers such as obesity and diabetes.

But now, at least three scientists working in top Singapore institutions and funded by major government organisations have been linked to scientific fraud in what could emerge as one of the biggest such cases here.

So far, two of the researchers have left their posts and another has had his PhD revoked, and six of their papers have been retracted.

The trio at the centre of the scandal are Professor Ravi Kambadur, 54, who was with the Nanyang Technological University (NTU); Dr Mridula Sharma, who was associate professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; and former NTU researcher Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy.

Their work focused on myostatin - a protein that regulates muscle growth in humans and animals, whose suppression the researchers claimed could keep people in "fat-burning mode" and let them shed kilos.

It was led by Prof Kambadur, whose joint appointments at NTU's School of Biological Sciences and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences - which comes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) - have been "terminated", according to NTU.

  • Falsified lab data casts doubt over 'fat-busting discovery' by ex-NTU professor's team

  • Former Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professor Ravi Kambadur was set to make waves in the world of biomedical research, as the leader of one of four teams awarded up to $10 million each in research grants in 2009.

    The proposal that won the grant for the India-trained New Zealander was selected from among 48 contenders, and looked to reprogramme skin cells to change into muscle cells to help slow loss of muscle mass in the elderly. In 2012, his team reported a discovery that could help achieve this goal.

    They had found that, by blocking the protein myostatin, muscle growth could be enhanced and fat utilisation in the body could be increased.

    The researchers also said this could reduce obesity without the need for strenuous physical activity, and indirectly protect against type-2 diabetes, of which obesity is a main cause.

    This research is now being called into question after investigations by NTU revealed that data from laboratory experiments had been falsified.

    Lin Yangchen

Dr Sharma is no longer at NUS and Dr Lokireddy has had his PhD from NTU revoked.

NTU, which did not elaborate on how the falsifications were uncovered, said its investigations in December last year led to three myostatin papers published in 2011 and 2012 being retracted. Two other papers were corrected and another withdrawn prior to publication.

Three more papers published from 2012 to 2014, based on research funded by A*Star and the National Research Foundation (NRF), are now being retracted from the journals Molecular Endocrinology and Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Both funding bodies could not confirm how much money had been pumped into the research.

Said NRF chief executive Low Teck Seng: "NRF holds a very high expectation with regard to the research that we fund. We do not condone any fraud or flouting of ethics. In my view, the organisations involved acted swiftly and appropriately."

Scientific misconduct is taken very seriously as false information can have a knock-on effect. In the current case, the retracted papers have already been cited by other researchers in their studies.

NTU said it was obliged to urgently correct the literature as part of its responsibility to the community.

An NUS spokesman confirmed that Dr Sharma is no longer with the university, but declined to comment further.

Retraction Watch, a website that monitors retractions of scientific publications, reported that the falsifications also happened in Dr Lokireddy's NTU doctoral thesis. He got his PhD four years ago.

Since then, he has been a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, in the United States, where he published at least one paper as first author, in the prestigious US journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences (PNAS) late last year.

A Harvard University spokesman did not respond to questions about Dr Lokireddy's employment status or the integrity of the PNAS paper, but said: "We are fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research. Any concerns brought to our attention are thoroughly reviewed."

NTU said that "disciplinary proceedings" are being taken against other researchers, and that Prof Kambadur's research students will be re-assigned to appropriate supervisors.

When contacted by The Straits Times, Prof Kambadur declined to comment, saying that he would leave it to NTU to investigate. Dr Sharma and Dr Lokireddy could not be reached for comment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline '3 S'pore-based scientists linked to research fraud'. Print Edition | Subscribe