The Montreal Heart Institute and the University of Montreal are investigating the work of a medical scientist who received millions in federal research grants, after two of his heart studies were retracted.

Zhiguo Wang's studies in 2007 and 2008 explored why heart rhythms go awry. Friday's issue of the Journal of the Biological Chemistry includes a stamp on the papers saying: "This article has been withdrawn by the authors."


The withdrawn studies focus on arrhythmia. (Eric Brady/The Roanoke Times/AP)

Wang said he and his co-authors withdrew the papers because of a mixup of images used to illustrate the data. The rest of the information in the articles was accurate, he said.

The conclusions in the paper were correct and the lab results have been reproduced, Wang said.

Wang has made important discoveries in the field of electrophysiology and arrhythmia, said Dr. Jean-Claude Tardif, director of the research centre at the Montreal Heart Institute.

A committee is "reviewing all the data and meeting the relevant people and they will produce a report once they have completed their work," said Tardif. The institution's investigation started two weeks ago.

The University of Montreal, which is affiliated with the institute, is also investigating.

Federal funding questions

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funded one of the retracted studies and the Canadian Diabetes Association funded the other.

Since 1999, Wang has received a total of $4.2 million in funding from CIHR, said Véronique Perron, senior public affairs adviser for the funding agency.

As a research funding agency, CIHR said it does not have a regulatory or a quasi-judicial mandate.

"When a researcher is alleged to have breached an agency policy, CIHR does not freeze a researcher's funding. In order to allow for due process, CIHR waits for the conclusion of the institutional investigations before considering taking any recourse," Perron said in an email to CBC News.

"In the interim, CIHR attaches a 'temporarily under review' internal flag to the researcher's file that alerts relevant CIHR staff should the researcher submit a new grant application requesting CIHR funds. CIHR would not release any new funds, until the conclusion of the investigation."

Between 2003 and 2009, the Canadian Diabetes Association funded Wang with more than $300,000. The association's 2007 guidelines said that misrepresentation of facts or academic dishonesty will result in disqualification of the application and possible suspension of the applicant from future research competitions.

"A suspension period, if applicable, will be determined in consultation with the National Research Council," Sherry Calder, manager of marketing & communications for the group's Atlantic Canada division.

It is plausible that the errors were a simple mix-up, but that doesn't make it excusable, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, who writes for the medical blog Retraction Watch.

These types of mistakes are serious and have had consequences before, he noted.

"Patients who may end up on some of these treatments" based on the studies in question, Oransky said, "deserve to know what's going on in those studies."

Academic journals need to a do a better job of screening studies, Oransky suggested.

Nancy Rodnan, director of publications for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, said the journal does not comment on withdrawn studies.

With files from CBC's Lauren McCallum