USC has Been Rocked by Allegations of Research Fraud Against a Neuroscientist; Here's What Happened
The University of Southern California (USC) finds itself at the center of a research scandal as it launches an internal investigation into renowned neuroscientist Berislav Zlokovic. The allegations stem from concerns raised within Zlokovic's laboratory, where four members claim fraudulent data is being used to support a groundbreaking drug for stroke treatment.
Allegations of manipulated data and professional intimidation
The complainants within Professor Zlokovic's lab have cited evidence of suspicious image manipulations in journal articles and raised concerns about unusual controls over entries in lab notebooks. According to a dossier compiled by external scientists, a culture of professional intimidation is evident within the laboratory.
Zlokovic's role in neuroscience and drug development
Berislav Zlokovic, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at USC, has gained recognition for his work on the blood-brain barrier—an essential aspect in understanding neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and strokes. Heading the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute for the past decade, Zlokovic secured $40 million in funding for the institute.
The focus of the investigation revolves around an enzyme called activated protein C (APC), and its variant known as 3K3A-APC. Zlokovic's company, ZZ Biotech, has been developing this compound, which was originally created by Professor John Griffin from the Scripps Research Institute. The National Institutes of Health funded a $30 million study last year to test the 3K3A-APC compound on 1,400 people shortly after experiencing a stroke.
Whistleblower claims and concerns
Whistleblowers from Zlokovic's lab and the dossier's authors argue that the ongoing study should be suspended due to early indications suggesting that 3K3A-APC may not be beneficial and could potentially be harmful. They contend that the study's approval was based on manipulated data, raising serious ethical and scientific questions.
USC's response and review
In response to the allegations, USC forwarded the claims to its Office of Research Integrity for careful review. The university emphasized the confidentiality of these reviews, refraining from making further comments on the ongoing investigation.
Professor Zlokovic's defense and scientific confidence
While Professor Zlokovic did not respond directly to questions, Professor Griffin, a colleague involved in the development of 3K3A-APC, sent a written rebuttal. Griffin provided scientific explanations to instill confidence in the efficacy of the drug.
Concerns over a prolific body of work
The dossier authors express concerns about images from 35 studies published by Zlokovic and his team, accumulating over 8,400 citations, which is remarkably high in comparison to similar work in the field. These studies have also gained citations in 49 patents held by various companies, universities, and foundations. Experts cited by Science magazine have raised alarms about the severity of the case, underscoring the potential implications for the broader scientific community.
Continuing trend of research fraud?
This case adds to a series of instances involving research fraud allegations against prominent academics, which even led to the recent resignation of Stanford University's president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. The neuroscientist stepped down after internal investigations revealed he failed to correct known errors in his published research.
The USC investigation into Professor Berislav Zlokovic raises critical questions about the integrity of scientific research, the peer-review process, and the accountability mechanisms within academic institutions. As the scientific community eagerly awaits the outcome, this case underscores the importance of robust systems to ensure the validity and reliability of research findings.
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