Researchers from the University of British Columbia are retracting their scientific paper linking aluminum in vaccines to autism in mice, because one of the co-authors claims figures published in the study were deliberately altered before publication — an issue he says he realized after allegations of data manipulation surfaced online.
The professor also told CBC News there's no way to know "why" or "how" the figures were allegedly contorted, as he claims original data cited in the study is inaccessible, which would be a contravention of the university's policy around scientific research.
The paper looked at the effects of aluminum components in vaccines on immune response in a mouse's brain. It was published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry on Sept. 5.
Co-authored by Dr. Chris Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, it reported aluminum-triggered responses "consistent with those in autism." Shaw said he and Tomljenovic drew their conclusions from data that was "compiled" and "analyzed" for the paper, rather than raw data.
However, subsequent scrutiny has raised questions about the validity of the data, with one doctor calling the paper "anti-vaccine pseudoscience."
The allegations were published last week on Retraction Watch, a site that reports on withdrawn papers as "a window into the scientific process."
By the middle of September, commenters on PubPeer — a database where users can examine and comment on published scientific papers — pointed out that figures in the study appeared to have been altered, and in one case lifted directly from a 2014 study also authored by Shaw and Tomljenovic.
Shaw, a professor at UBC's department of ophthalmology, said he and the lab ran their own analysis of the figures in question after seeing allegations from PubPeer on Sept. 24. He said he requested a retraction from the journal within two days and notified the university.
"It appears as if some of the images in mostly what were non-significant results had been flipped," Shaw told CBC on Thursday. "We don't know why, we don't know how … but there was a screw-up, there's no question about that."
Shaw said the lab can't confirm how the figures were allegedly altered because he claims original data needed for comparison is no longer at the UBC laboratory.
"We don't think that the conclusions are at risk here, but because we don't know, we thought it best to withdraw," the researcher said.
Asked how the seemingly wonky figures weren't caught before publication, Shaw said it was "a good question."
"We were always under the impression that, based on our viewing of the original data a couple years ago and our subsequent analysis of these data, that everything was fine," he said. "One double-checks this at various stages in the process, but by the time you've looked at them enough times and done the various analyses on them, you do tend to believe they're right.
"When you look at these kinds of [data], unless you look at them under very, very high power and magnify them 20 times — which no one does, by the way — you would not necessarily see that there was anything untoward," the professor said.
Original data taken overseas, Shaw claims
Shaw claims the original data is in China, with an analyst who worked on the paper.
The professor claimed the analyst told him the data are "stuck there."
"It's like 'the dog ate my homework.' What are you going to do?"
He noted that, even if the original data are recovered, he thinks "this paper is dead" for credibility reasons.
University policy dictates that original data must remain with the lab for at least five years after it's collected. In this case, the data should stay at the UBC lab until 2018.
The university told CBC it won't be commenting on the retraction or the allegations of removed lab data.
The analyst's lawyer did not comment on the allegations surrounding the data in a statement to CBC, saying it was "a matter between UBC and Dr. Shaw."
Reached by email on Friday, co-author Tomljenovic said she agreed to the retraction but said she "had nothing to do either with collecting or analyzing any of the actual data." She declined further comment.
Alleged data manipulation 'appalling,' expert says
Dr. Michael Gardam, an associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Toronto, looked at the paper and the allegations and said there seems to be "pretty clear evidence that data has been falsified" — even if the lab team doesn't have the material to confirm. He called it "appalling."
"I've run [data] like that. They don't change themselves, and the photos don't change themselves," Gardam told CBC on Friday. "The images have been manipulated, according to what I've seen, and I'd argue [Shaw] clearly agrees with that because he's actually retracting the paper."
Past retractions, vaccine documentary
Gardam noted that another scientific paper Shaw worked on on the topic of vaccines was retracted in 2016.
The article, published in the journal Vaccine, questioned the safety of the HPV vaccine Gardasil.
The paper was pulled "due to serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article" and "seriously flawed" methodology, according to the journal.
Shaw was one of the eight co-authors on the study, but he distanced himself from the project on Thursday.
"I was not directly involved except for some editorial comments at the early stages of the manuscript," he said.
The paper was republished by another journal after further review by the authors.
When it comes to this latest UBC study, Gardam said the university is going to need the original data if it determines an investigation is required.
Shaw said he's likely finished working on papers concerning vaccines after this retraction.
"I'm honestly not sure at this point that I want to dabble in [vaccines] anymore," he said. "We have some projects that are ongoing that have been funded that we feel duty-bound to complete that are on this topic. Frankly, I doubt if I will do it again after that."
CBC also asked the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry for comment and did not hear back by deadline.