Staff of top Toronto scientists altered images: documents

A Toronto hospital investigating claims two of its researchers fabricated data in published scientific papers was told the image-altering program Photoshop was commonly used in their lab, a court document reveals.

Dr. Sylvia Asa and Dr. Shereen Ezzat ask court to order a new investigation into allegations

A Toronto hospital investigating claims two of its researchers fabricated data in published scientific papers was told the image-altering program Photoshop was commonly used in their lab, a court document reveals.

The researchers, Dr. Sylvia Asa and Dr. Shereen Ezzat, are asking Ontario's Divisional Court to quash a University Health Network decision that found they fabricated and falsified data.

The researchers — who are married — are asking the court to order a new investigation into the allegations, one that would involve an oral hearing that would allow for the cross-examination of witnesses. The hospital's investigation panel based its findings on written evidence and submissions.

The application document filed on behalf of Ezzat and Asa asks the court to move quickly to forestall further damage to their reputations and careers.

"With each new sanction, journal retraction and funding opportunity lost, the applicants' work becomes less and less credible and the applicants' opportunities to advance their work in cancer detection and treatment are lost," the document says.

'Radical alterations' in 8 images: court document

The court document filed by Asa and Ezzat reveals a number of details about the allegations against them.

— Concerns were raised about 24 scientific papers.

— The hospital's initial investigation focused on seven of the red-flagged articles. (A hospital spokesperson says that number is actually nine.)

— A forensic image analyst hired by the hospital pored over 89 images contained in those studies.

— According to the court document, the investigation committee concluded eight images had undergone "radical alterations."

The hospital has not released either the original report or Pisters's decision on the appeal.

Neither Asa nor Ezzat responded Thursday to emails asking for an interview. Their lawyer, Brian Moher, was willing to discuss the court process but declined to talk about the evidence he has put before the court.

The allegations against Asa and Ezzat became public when the American Journal of Pathology retracted two scientific articles the pair published in 2010.

Questions about the papers were raised in 2012 and University Health Network — a conglomeration of four teaching hospitals affiliated with the University of Toronto — began an investigation.

The hospital's research internal investigations committee concluded Asa, UHN's chief pathologist, and Ezzat, an endocrinologist and head of a research laboratory, had fabricated and falsified data.

Asa and Ezzat appealed to the hospital's president, Dr. Peter Pisters. In March of this year, Pisters backed the investigations committee's findings. In May, the two researchers were informed they faced a number of sanctions.

The court document says a former employee of the lab, Xuogong Zhu, told the committee he had changed images in two of the papers under investigation. It goes on to say Zhu reported that use of Photoshop — a computer program that can alter images — was common in the lab in question.

Zhu, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati, declined to be interviewed.

Another member of the lab staff, Wei Liu, told the investigating committee that a third member of the staff, Miao Guo, told him she had altered an image to enhance it, after seeing Zhu do something similar.

Liu told the hospital he reported Guo's action to Ezzat but the court document says Ezzat denied the conversation took place. Later, Liu said he believed it was Asa he had told.

The court document said both Asa and Ezzat were demoted as a result of the investigation. "Both the applicants were ultimately presented with the 'choice' of either stepping down as department heads or being removed."

A number of other career-limiting sanctions were imposed. Any animal research the pair wants to conduct has to be pre-approved by the hospital's vice-president for research and the couple is not allowed to do human subject research. They cannot apply for research funding and there are strict limits on their interactions with trainees and research personnel, the court document says.

Meanwhile, the hospital's investigations continue. Gillian Howard, vice-president for communications and public affairs, said in an email Thursday that scrutiny of the other red-flagged scientific papers is ongoing.

A preliminary court date has been set for Aug. 27, Moher said.


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