NTU, A*STAR: Scientific papers retracted, PhD revoked, professor fired

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School of Biological Sciences, NTU Credit: Biotechin.Asia

Prof Ravi Kambadur who lead the myostatin research group in the School of Biological Science, NTU, and had a joint appointment at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), A*STAR, Singapore, has been sacked and one of his ex-PhD students, Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy, has got his doctoral degree revoked following a research integrity scandal that was looming large over NTU in the past one year. Lokireddy was implicated in falsifying data in the research conducted when he was a PhD student at NTU, while Prof. Kambadur was found to be “wilfully negligent” in his supervision of the group, said the university in a statement.

The news about the alleged “research malpractice” in myostatin research surfaced in December last year. The work in question was one that garnered a lot of publicity a couple of years back – the group had claimed that myostatin, a protein that regulates muscle growth in humans, could promote weight loss if suppressed.

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Dr. Ravi Kambadur, Credit: SBS, NTU

Along with Kambadur and Lokireddy, Dr Mridula Sharma, who was associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine was implicated in this, but she has since then, left the university. The disciplinary proceedings are still ongoing against other researcher(s) who were involved in the data falsification.

There was an investigation on two papers that were separately co-authored by Lokireddy and his colleague Dr Sandhya Sriram*, who is presently a research fellow at A*STAR. The investigation concluded that Lokireddy was guilty of falsifying data, while Dr. Sriram had conducted “cosmetic alterations” like removal of western blot channels with void results and not stating it in the relevant journals, rather than falsify data.

Tony Mayer, a research integrity officer at NTU, stated that she was misguided calling her an “innocent party” and said “She had been told by her supervisors that you can do this and you don’t have to say you’ve done it.”

Her PhD thesis has since been corrected, reflecting the western blot changes in the figure legend while one of her papers has been withdrawn, due to the particular journals regulations.

On the other hand, Lokireddy has been a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School since the time of his graduation four years ago. Surprisingly, Lokireddy’s paper’s retraction notice collectively says: “The co-authors agree with this statement, with the exception of the first author, Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy.”

A spokesperson for Harvard Medical School sent this statement to Retraction Watch: “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 in accordance with institutional policies and applicable regulations.”

According to Mayer, the falsification also occurred in Lokireddy’s PhD thesis, hence his PhD has been revoked by NTU.

Following that investigation, another member of Kambadur’s research group, who couldn’t be named due to ongoing disciplinary procedures, admitted to fabricating data. This has led to three new papers being retracted. The three newly retracted papers have five authors in common: Sabeera Bonala, Craig McFarlane (Principal Investigator at SICS), Mridula Sharma, Ravi Kambadur and Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy. This has led to a final count of Lokireddy earning five retractions, while Dr. Kambadur and Dr. Sharma facing six retractions to their name.

NTU reiterated its stand on research integrity and said “As a top-ranked global university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) upholds the highest research standards and international best practices in research. NTU has zero tolerance towards any form of research malpractice and will not hesitate to take action against anyone found to be lacking in research integrity”

Meanwhile, NTU has assured that Prof Kambadur’s research students will be re-assigned to appropriate supervisors.

*Disclaimer: Dr Sandhya Sriram is the Director, Assistant Editor and Co-founder of Biotechin.Asia.  She graduated with a PhD from the lab of Dr Kambadur; all the charges against her were cleared after a thorough investigation by NTU.

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