STANFORD, Calif. — Marc Tessier-Lavigne, current president of Stanford University, and researcher investigating Alzheimer’s disease, is once again under scrutiny for allegations of falsifying data in scientific papers.
The saga began in 2009; at the time Tessier-Lavigne was a high-level executive at Genentech, a biotechnology company. In a scientific paper published in the journal Nature, Tessier-Lavigne claimed to have found the potential cause for the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
In response to the research, Genentech issued a statement which read, “We are working to develop both antibodies and small molecules that may attack Alzheimer’s from a novel entry point and help the millions of people who currently suffer from this devastating disease.”
No single paper, or individual study, however, is deemed so significant that seismic shifts in medical thought or practice are made based on the work. Such significant research must be reproduced, and reproduced again, to validate the results. That repetition also helps scientists to hold each other accountable for the quality and validity of their work.
Multiple attempts to reproduce Tessier-Lavigne’s questionable research were unsuccessful, prompting a 2011 review by a Genentech Research Review Committee (RRC). Two senior scientists and two executive scientists on the committee, under condition of anonymity, reported falsification of data, and that Tessier-Lavigne had kept the findings from becoming public. The RRC found that the fundamental science was fabricated.
After the review, research based on the paper’s findings was canceled and several patent applications were withdrawn. The research has not led to an Alzheimer’s treatment. Till Maurer, a senior scientist at the company from 2009-2018, said he was assigned to develop drugs based on the 2009 paper. He told The Stanford Daily that his superior informed him that, in Maurer’s words, “the project is being canceled and it’s because they found falsified data.”
According to Nature’s policy, when data fabrication is determined, the author should retract the paper. The Committee of Publication Ethics, a nonprofit that supports journal editors around the world, recommends retraction in the case of “clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of major error (e.g., miscalculation or experimental error), or as a result of fabrication (e.g., of data) or falsification (e.g., image manipulation).”
Tessler-Lavigne declined to retract the paper.
Tessier-Lavigne denies all allegations. Genentech said, in a statement, that “as part of our diligence related to these allegations, we reviewed the records from that November 2011 RRC meeting and saw no allegations of fraud or wrongdoing.” The company acknowledged, however, that “given that these events happened many years ago … our current records may not be complete.”
He also issued an additional comment to The Washington Post: “I know I acted with complete integrity at every stage of my career, at Genentech, before and after. The allegations of wrongdoing against me are completely false. I am confident that when all the facts come out I will be fully vindicated.”
Tessier-Lavigne became Stanford University’s president in 2016. November 29, 2022, the Stanford Board of Trustees announced its own investigation into his research just after the Stanford Daily reported 7 years of scientific misconduct allegations, involving four academic papers with Tessier-Lavigne listed as author.
Research misconduct expert Elisabeth Bik reported that Tessier-Lavigne’s papers contain “serious issues,” including altered imagery. Two other researchers found the same.
According to spokesperson Dee Mostofi, the University will “assess the allegations presented in the Stanford Daily, consistent with its normal rigorous approach by which allegations of research misconduct are reviewed and investigated.” The investigation will be overseen by the Board of Trustees. Though Tessier-Lavigne is a member of the Board of Trustees as Stanford’s president, he will not be involved in the investigation into his own research, Mostofi wrote.
Tessier-Lavigne, commented publicly for the first time on these matters through his spokesperson, stating, “Scientific integrity is of the utmost importance, both to the university and to me personally. I support this process and will fully cooperate with it, and I appreciate the oversight by the Board of Trustees.”
The Daily’s request for an interview with Tessier-Lavigne to provide explanations for individual allegations was declined, as were numerous other requests for interviews.
In addition to the four scientific papers The Daily reported, the university’s investigation may include a fifth paper Tessier-Lavigne co-authored in 1999. It was published in the journal Cell. “These latest allegations, about a different scientific paper, are more serious because they involve what was once considered a promising treatment target for Alzheimer’s disease – and because people involved in the review allege that Tessier-Lavigne tried to keep its findings hidden,” the report stated.