After months of intense scrutiny of his scientific work, Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced Wednesday that he will step down as president of Stanford University after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he oversaw going back decades.
The review, conducted by an outside panel of scientists, refuted the most serious claim involving Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s work — that a major 2009 Alzheimer’s study was the subject of an investigation that found falsified data and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne covered it up
The panel concluded that the claim, published in February by The Stanford Daily, the campus newspaper, “appears to be erroneous” and that there was no evidence of falsified data, or that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne otherwise engaged in fraud.
But the review also stated that the 2009 study, conducted while he was an executive at the biotech company Genentech, had “multiple problems” and “fell below usual standards of scientific rigor and process,” especially for a paper of such potential consequences.
Following the review, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said he would retract a 1999 paper that appeared in the journal Cell and two others that appeared in Science in 2001. Two other papers published in Nature, including the Alzheimer’s study of 2009, would also be. to undergo what was described as a comprehensive correction.
Stanford is known for its leadership in scientific research, and although the claims involved work published before Dr. Tessier-Lavigne arrived at the university in 2016, the allegations reflected poorly on the university’s integrity.
In a statement outlining his reasons for resigning, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said, “I expect that there may be continued discussion about the report and its conclusions, at least in the short term, which could lead to a debate about my ability to lead the university into the new academic a year.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, 63, will leave the presidency at the end of August but will remain at the university as a professor of biology.
The university named Richard Saller, professor of European studies, as interim president, effective Sept. 1.
As president of Stanford, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne is known for starting the university’s first new school in 70 years, the Doerr School of Sustainability. Opened last year, the school’s stated mission is to seek a solution to climate change.
The panel’s 89-page report, based on more than 50 interviews and a review of more than 50,000 documents, concluded that members of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s laboratories engaged in inappropriate handling of research data or deficient scientific practices, which resulted in significant defects in five. articles that listed Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as the lead author.
On several occasions, the panel found, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne took insufficient steps to correct errors, and it questioned his decision not to seek a correction in the 2009 paper after follow-up studies revealed that its key finding was wrong.
The deficiencies cited by the panel also included seven other articles in which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was listed as either lead author or co-author. As a well-known neuroscientist, he has published more than 200 articles, focusing mainly on the cause and treatment of degenerative brain diseases. Beginning in the 1990s, he worked at multiple institutions, including Stanford, Rockefeller University, the University of California, San Francisco, and Genentech, a biotechnology company.
The allegations first surfaced years ago on PubPeer, an online website for publishing and discussing scholarly work. But they resurfaced after the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, published a series of articles questioning the accuracy and honesty of work produced in laboratories overseen by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne.
The newspaper first reported claims last November that images had been manipulated in published articles listing Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as either lead author or co-author.
In February, the campus newspaper published an article with more serious claims of fraud involving the 2009 article that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne published while a senior scientist at Genentech.
The Stanford Daily report said that a Genentech investigation found that the 2009 study contained falsified data, and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne. tried to keep its findings hidden.
It also reported that a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study was caught by Genentech falsifying data.
Both Dr. Tessier-Lavigne and the former researcher, now a medical doctor practicing in Florida, strongly denied the claims, which relied heavily on unnamed sources.
Noting that, in some cases, it could not identify the unnamed sources cited in The Stanford Daily story, the panel said the newspaper’s claim that “Genentech conducted a fraud investigation and made a finding of fraud” in the study “appeared.” make a mistake.” No such investigation was conducted, the report said.
Following the newspaper’s initial report on manipulated studies in November, Stanford’s board of trustees formed a special committee to review the claims, led by Carol Lam, a Stanford trustee and former federal prosecutor. The special commission then hired Mark Filip, a former federal judge in Illinois, and his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to run the audit.
In January, it was announced that Mr. Filip also enlisted the five-member scientific panel – which included a Nobel laureate and a former Princeton president – to examine the claims from a scientific perspective.
Genentech touted the 2009 study as a success, with Dr. Tessier-Lavigne characterizing the results while presentation to Genentech investors as a completely new and different way of looking at the Alzheimer’s disease process.
The study focused on what it said was the previously unknown role of a brain protein – Death Receptor 6 – in the development of Alzheimer’s.
As was the case with many new theories in Alzheimer’s, a central finding of the study was found to be incorrect. Following several years of attempts to duplicate the results, Genentech finally abandoned the line of inquiry.
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne left Genentech in 2011 to head Rockefeller University, but, along with the company, published subsequent work acknowledging the failure to confirm key parts of the research.
More recently, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne told the publication STAT NEWS that there were inconsistencies in the results of experiments that he blamed. crude protein samples.
The failure of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s Genentech laboratory to ensure the purity of the samples was one of the scientific process problems cited by the panel, which also criticized Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s decision not to correct the original paper as ” suboptimal” but within the. limits of scientific practice.
In his statement, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said he had earlier tried to issue corrections to the Cell and Science papers, but that Cell refused to publish a correction and Science did not issue one after agreeing to do so.
The panel’s findings confirmed a report published in April by Genentech, which said its own internal review of The Stanford Daily’s claims did not find any evidence of “fraud, fabrication or other intentional wrongdoing.”
The bulk of the panel’s report, about 60 pages, is a detailed appendix of analysis of images in 12 published scientific papers in which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne served as either author or co-author, some dating back 20 years.
The panel found multiple examples of images in the articles that were duplicated or spliced, but concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not participate in the manipulation, was not aware of them at the time, and was not negligent in failing to detect them. .
Oliver Whang contributed reporting.