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Two former U. of C. medical researchers faked data, government finds

Two former University of Chicago medical researchers faked and falsified data in two federally funded studies into heart failure, according to federal records.

Ricky Malhotra and Karen D'Souza, who both left the university in 2011, have agreed to sanctions for their research misconduct, said the Office of Research Integrity, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal watchdog made its findings public in separate administrative actions issued May 24 and June 1.

The office's investigations into research fraud result in only about a dozen or so findings of wrongdoing a year, said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, an independent blog that tracks scientific errors.

After the federal watchdog released its reports, the Journal of Biological Chemistry retracted a 2010 scientific article Malhotra and D'Souza co-wrote. A 2011 article related to their research was withdrawn last year, according to the journal.

"The journal publishes about 80 papers a week and, on the whole, corrects, withdraws and retracts very few," Kaoru Sakabe, manager of publishing issues for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said in a statement. "No matter the reason, the JBC editors are committed to correcting the literature."

The U. of C. said in a statement that it became aware of the allegations through a letter from the Division of Investigative Oversight at the Office of Research Integrity. The university investigated the matter and made the Journal of Biological Chemistry aware of the investigation panel's findings.

A U. of C. spokeswoman declined comment on the departures of Malhotra and D'Souza because the school doesn't comment on personnel matters.

Malhotra joined the U. of C. in 2007 as a researcher studying cardiac biology and later became an academic appointee, according to the university. D'Souza became a research associate in 2008 and worked with Malhotra.

Malhotra has admitted to committing misconduct, according to the federal report. In an interview, he said he voluntarily resigned from the U. of C. in November 2011 and is not currently affiliated with any institution or university. He said the findings were part of a mutual settlement agreement and declined further comment.

D'Souza did not return phone messages left for her at her current employer, the Carl T. Hayden Medical Research Foundation, which is affiliated with the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

One of the studies they were involved in at the University of Chicago looked at ways to improve long-term survival rates after coronary artery bypass surgery. Their research was at the molecular level.

Their research was led by Dr. Shahab Akhter, who left the U. of C. in 2013 for the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he is chief of cardiothoracic surgery. Akhter is listed as the principal investigator on both of the research grants, according to the National Institutes of Health. He was not cited in either investigative report.

Akhter declined comment through a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin's health system.

While he was at the U. of C., Akhter was awarded about $922,000 for the study related to outcomes of bypass surgery, which began in 2011. He has continued to receive federal funds for the same project at the University of Wisconsin.

In 2005, when Akhter was at the University of Cincinnati, he received a five-year grant totaling about $666,000, for similar research. He continued working on the project when he moved to Chicago in 2007, and the grant ended in 2009.

Malhotra's first violations occurred before he came to the U. of C. While at the University of Michigan, where he was in 2005 and 2006, Malhotra included data in a grant application, but didn't perform 74 experiments to support the figures, the investigation found.

Despite an investigation by the University of Michigan, Malhotra continued falsifying data at the University of Chicago, the Office of Research Integrity said. Some of the bad data were reported in the 2010 article.

For the next 10 years, any research he conducts using U.S. Public Health Service funds must be done under supervision. Malhotra also cannot serve as a peer reviewer or in any advisory capacity to Public Health Service for five years.

D'Souza also entered into a voluntary settlement agreement after the U. of C.'s investigation and additional analysis by the government watchdog. She agreed to two years of supervised research and exclusion from any peer review committee.

Chicago Tribune's Becky Yerak contributed.

asachdev@tribpub.com

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