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Texas Immunologist Faked Results

16 October 2000 7:00 pm

A University of Texas (UT) immunologist has admitted to federal officials that he falsified research results for at least 5 years, leaving a trail of retracted papers and disgruntled collaborators. The scientist, who resigned and has been barred from receiving federal research grants, repeatedly duped colleagues by spiking test tubes, according to detailed reports by UT and federal investigators.

Last month, the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) announced that William A. Simmons of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas had signed a statement admitting misconduct and accepted several penalties, including a 5-year ban on receiving federal research grants. Officials at the medical center said in a statement that they are considering "further disciplinary action." This could include fines and the revocation of his 1996 Ph.D.

Simmons published a series of papers, including a 1997 Immunity paper suggesting that an undiscovered gene--dubbed Cim2--influences the behavior of a gene implicated in autoimmune diseases. Efforts to find Cim2, however, stalled after Simmons left the medical center in 1998 for a corporate job. The postdoc who replaced Simmons "had almost no success in reproducing any of" Simmons's work, according to ORI records, and Simmons was rehired as an untenured faculty member in April 1999 "to help straighten out" the research.

Within days, Simmons's work came under suspicion. An unidentified co-worker observed him pipetting fluid into vials used to test the activity of certain immune system cells. The procedure was not consistent with the experimental protocol. Returning later to investigate, the co-worker discovered a wash bottle and testing vials full of radioactive chromium 51--a substance that should not have been present in the vials until days later in the experiment. By adding predetermined quantities of the radioactive chemical to the vials, investigators say, Simmons produced results that were in line with expectations.

Simmons also falsified results on samples sent to him by collaborating researchers, according to a subsequent ORI investigation. "A preponderance of the evidence" showed that Simmons had "systematically" falsified results "throughout his tenure as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow," the ORI report states. Despite earlier denials of the allegations, Simmons signed an ORI settlement agreement on 10 August that called for the retraction of the 1997 Immunity paper and three others published since 1993 in the Journal of Immunology and Immunogenetics. A table in a 1998 Journal of Experimental Medicine paper was also withdrawn.

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Office of Research Integrity

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