The head of GlaxoSmithKline's R&D operation in China has been fired while another researcher has resigned following a company probe into allegations that company investigators had "misrepresented" data on interleukin-7 research published in Nature Medicine.
News of the allegation of misconduct and the internal probe it inspired has been bubbling around the industry over the past few days, with reports in Pharmalot and other industry pubs. Nature reported that GlaxoSmithKline spokesperson Melinda Stubbee confirmed that Jingwu Zhang at the GlaxoSmithKline Research and Development Center's department of neuroimmunology in Shanghai "originally claimed to have found data suggesting that the signaling molecule interleukin-7 caused a subset of T cells known as T helper 17 (TH17) cells taken from people with multiple sclerosis to multiply. The finding complemented other research in the field suggesting that genetic differences in the cell receptor for interleukin-7 might put some individuals at risk for developing multiple sclerosis--an autoimmune disease thought to involve helper T cells."
Zhang was fired, another unidentified employee resigned and three others were suspended from their jobs pending a final review by the company.
"Regretfully, our investigation has established that certain data in the paper were indeed misrepresented," GlaxoSmithKline said in a statement. "We've shared our conclusion that the paper should be retracted and are in the process of asking all of the authors to sign a statement to that effect, according to Nature Medicine's procedure."
Getting a reputation for employing researchers who play fast and loose with data can have damaging repercussions, especially for a major pharma company like GSK. Incidents like these can undermine the integrity of all its research in China, a growing hub for drug development work. And Derek Lowe, an investigator and prominent industry blogger at In The Pipeline, notes that it's the kind of scandal that raises plenty of additional questions that need to be answered.
"How, for one thing, did this happen in the first place?" asks Lowe. "On whose initiative were results faked? Who was supposed to check up on these results, and was there anything that could have been done to catch this problem earlier? Even more worrying--and you can bet that plenty of people inside GSK are thinking this, too--how many more things have been faked as well? You'd hope that this was an isolated incident, but if someone is willing to whip up a batch of lies like this, they might well be willing to do much more besides."