After months of intense scrutiny of his scientific work, Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced Wednesday that he would step down as president of Stanford University after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he oversaw for years.
The review, conducted by a panel of outside scientists, rejected the most serious claim of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne – that an important 2009 Alzheimer’s study was the subject of an investigation that uncovered falsified data and was covered up by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne.
The panel concluded that the claims, published in February by The Stanford Daily, the campus newspaper, “appear to be mistaken” and that there was no evidence that data had been falsified or that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had 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 normal standards of rigor and scientific process,” particularly for a paper on such potential consequences.
As a result of 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 2009 Alzheimer’s study, would also undergo a comprehensive correction.
Stanford is known for its leadership in scientific research, and although the claims related to work published before Dr. Tessier-Lavigne came to the university in 2016, the allegations reflected badly on the integrity of the university.
In a statement describing his reasons for resigning, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, “I expect that there will be ongoing discussion of the report and its conclusions, at least in the near future, which may lead to a debate about my ability to lead the university into the new academic year.”
Dr Tessier-Lavigne, 63, will step down as president 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 September 1.
As Stanford’s president, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne is known for starting the university’s first new school in 70 years, the Doerr School of Sustainability. The school opened last year, the stated mission of the school is to find 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 improper manipulation of research data or deficient scientific practices, leading to significant flaws in five papers that listed Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as a lead author.
In several cases, the panel found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not take adequate steps to correct mistakes, and questioned his decision not to seek a correction in the 2009 paper after follow-up studies indicated that his main finding was wrong.
The flaws cited by the panel concerned a total of 12 papers, in which Dr Tessier-Lavigne was listed as lead or co-author. As a well-known neurologist, he has published more than 200 papers, focusing mainly on the cause and treatment of degenerative brain diseases. Beginning in the 1990s, he worked at various 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 crowdsourcing site for publishing and discussing scientific work. But they resurfaced after the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, published a series of articles that questioned the accuracy and honesty of the work produced in labs overseen by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne.
The newspaper first reported demands last November that images had been manipulated in published papers listing Dr Tessier-Lavigne as lead or co-author.
In February, the campus newspaper published an article with more serious fraud claims related to a 2009 paper published by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne while he was a senior scientist at Genentech.
The Stanford Daily report said an investigation by Genentech found data falsified in the 2009 study, and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne tried to keep his results hidden.
He also reported that a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study was caught by Genentech’s falsified data.
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne and the former researcher, who is now a medical doctor practicing in Florida, strongly denied the claims, which relied heavily on anonymous sources.
Noting that, in some cases, it was unable to identify the anonymous sources cited in the Stanford Daily story, the review panel said The Daily’s claim that Genentech had “conducted a fraud investigation and discovered fraud” in the study “appeared to be incorrect.” No such investigation was conducted, the report said.
After the newspaper’s initial report about manipulated studies in November, Stanford’s board formed a special committee to review the claims, headed by Carol Lam, a Stanford trustee and former federal prosecutor. The special committee then hired Mark Filip, a former federal judge in Illinois, and his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to conduct the review.
In January, it was announced that Mr. Filip was also enlisted on the five-member scientific panel – including a Nobel laureate and the former president of Princeton – to examine the claims from a scientific point of view.
Genentech had approached the 2009 study as a breakthrough, and Dr. Tessier-Lavigne characterized the findings during present to Genentech investors as a completely new and different way of looking at the Alzheimer’s disease process.
The study focused on what he said was the unknown role of a brain protein – Death Receptor 6 – in the development of Alzheimer’s.
As with many new Alzheimer’s theories, the study’s central finding was found to be wrong. After several years of trying to replicate the results, Genentech eventually abandoned the line of inquiry.
Dr. left. Tessier-Lavigne Genentech in 2011 to head Rockefeller University, but, together with the company, he later published work recognizing that key parts of the research failed to confirm.
Later, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne told the publication STAT NEWS that there were inconsistencies in the results of the experiments, which he blamed examples of protein impurities.
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 “sub-optimal” 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 Cell refused to publish a correction and Science failed to publish one after agreeing to it.
The results of the panel confirmed a report released by Genentech in April, which said Its own internal review of The Stanford Daily’s claims found no evidence of “fraud, fabrication or intentional wrongdoing.”
The bulk of the panel’s report, approximately 60 pages, consists of a detailed appendix of analysis of images in 12 published scientific papers in which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne served as author or co-author, some dating back 20 years.
The panel found multiple examples of images in the papers that were duplicated or split but concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne participated in the manipulation, which he was not aware of at the time, and was not reckless when they failed to detect them.
Oliver Wang reporting helped.