UCSD Claims Scientist Falsified Heart Research
A prolific young cardiac researcher who was being considered for appointment to a professorship in the UC San Diego School of Medicine has resigned amid allegations that he falsified research data in at least two recently published reports, The Times has learned.
Dr. Paul J. Friedman, an associate dean in the school, said in an interview Wednesday that university officials have found that Robert Slutsky fabricated research results in three cases, two of which were published and a third submitted for publication. Friedman said officials expect to find additional instances of fabrication when they scrutinize all of Slutsky’s extensive research.
According to Friedman, university officials believe Slutsky recycled data from earlier research into new reports, naming as co-authors professors and researchers who never took part in the work. In some cases, Friedman said, the names of the co-authors were even misspelled.
“He had been a very successful and hard-working researcher,” Friedman said. " . . . the individual had so many accomplishments, it is very difficult to figure out why (he) found it necessary to embroider new ones.”
Slutsky, who resigned in late April, could not be reached Tuesday or Wednesday for comment. He has sold his house in Mission Hills and apparently moved away from San Diego. A New York City lawyer who represents Slutsky also could not be reached late Wednesday after the interview with Friedman.
Friedman said the university has asked Slutsky to retract the two articles based on allegedly fraudulent research. They were published last spring in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Friedman said Slutsky’s lawyer has not agreed with the wording proposed by the university. He said the university will go ahead and retract the research even if no agreement is reached.
Friedman said the university’s investigating committee found that one of the two reports, based on research on dogs to test the use of steroids in treating heart attack patients, might have been misleading within the medical community.
But he said neither study is believed to have affected patient care. “No one will alter clinical management of a real patient on the basis of a dog study,” he said. “It might lead one to want to do a controlled clinical study.”
The university also has reported its findings to several foundations that may have paid for the allegedly phony research or related research by Slutsky, Friedman said. He said those include the National Institutes of Health, the American Lung Assn. and several foundations that had presented Slutsky with research awards.
“We anticipate that we will find other papers which appear to be unsupportable for one reason or another,” Friedman said. “We also hope to come up with answers to a couple of questions . . . such as, is this something that could have been picked up earlier, and was the university supervising him adequately?”
Questions about Slutsky first arose last spring when faculty members considered his application for the job of cardiac radiologist--a full-time faculty position involving teaching, clinical work and research, Friedman said.
Slutsky has published more than 100 papers, many in the field of cardiac radiology, the assessment of heart function through X-rays and other techniques.
“To the distress of the people reviewing his work preparatory to writing some letters of recommendation, they found some questionable tables in one of his publications,” Friedman said. Upon closer scrutiny, the professors reviewing the application raised other questions about the validity of some of Slutsky’s work, Friedman said.
Friedman said Slutsky was unable to answer the professors’ questions. So they referred the results of their informal investigation to the office of the dean, following department protocol. After that, a second faculty committee began a formal investigation in early May.
Resigned in April
Meanwhile, Friedman said, Slutsky spontaneously submitted a letter of resignation dated April 30. Friedman said the letter stated simply that Slutsky believed that it would be best if he severed his relations with the university and pursued a private practice in cardiology. Since then, Friedman said, Slutsky has not contacted the university, and all communications have come through his lawyer.
The new committee appointed for the formal investigation conducted interviews and reviewed papers and research records between May 7 and June 18, Friedman said. He said a report of its conclusions was sent to Slutsky’s attorney so Slutsky might respond. Friedman said the university has received no response to the charges.
According to Friedman, the seven-member committee concluded unanimously that Slutsky had “fabricated or falsified many of the research findings in at least these three papers.”
In addition, he said, “It was the finding of the committee that the people listed as co-authors had not been participants in the research and at least in one case had not even known that the paper was being written until it appeared as a submitted manuscript.”
Friedman said none of the investigating committees has found evidence of fraud on the part of researchers other than Slutsky.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Robert Day, a former UCSD researcher who is now working in Texas and who is named as a co-author of a report published by Slutsky last spring, said he did not know why he was listed as a co-author. (This report was not among the three formally investigated by the university committee.)
“All I can say is he may have put my name on a paper there,” Day said. “I have not even reviewed that paper to know why my name is on it.”
Two of the reports that the committee found to be fraudulent were published, in February and May, in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Friedman said the third was submitted for publication in Europe, but the committee could not determine whether it had been published.
Friedman said the committee found that the papers were not based on new research. Instead, he said, Slutsky apparently based the reports on the results of earlier lab experiments, pretending he had done new work.
“Some of it was slightly altered data, that had been actually reported, from other experiments,” he said. “But a significant amount of the experimentation reported in these papers was not done, as far as we could determine.”
He added, “We reviewed the research records available and interviewed the other people working in the lab and could find no evidence that these additional animals could have been prepared and studied. . . .
“It was not simply a matter of taking the same experiments and reporting them twice, since the design of the experiments was slightly different from the ones we know to have been done.”
The committee also concluded that Slutsky had misrepresented himself, Friedman said, stating that he had board certification in the field of nuclear medicine when in fact he did not.
Ironically, Friedman said, board certification in nuclear medicine would not even have been necessary in the job for which Slutsky was being considered.
“I’m afraid this fits the pattern, if I may make a small observation,” Friedman said. “It fits the pattern of having done things which were quite unnecessary that characterizes all the rest of this.”
Friedman and others who were willing to talk about Slutsky described him as a prodigious and respected worker.
“He was very productive, very hard working, intelligent and pleasant,” Friedman said. “Everybody in the department really was fond of him. That’s why I used the word ‘distress’ earlier. Because this was a very unpleasant shock to his colleagues.”
A 1974 graduate of UCLA medical school, Slutsky had done his internship and residency in medicine at UCSD, then spent two years as a resident and fellow in nuclear medicine, Friedman said. After that, Slutsky spent two years as a cardiac fellow--that is, in a training and research position, learning the specialty under supervision.
Slutsky then became an assistant clinical professor of medicine for six months and an assistant professor of radiology for a year, Friedman said. After that, Slutsky decided to switch out of cardiology into radiology--two closely related fields. He served as a resident in radiology from 1983 to 1985. Colleagues said Slutsky is now in his mid- to late 30s.
During that time, Friedman said, Slutsky was both doing clinical work in radiology and doing research on the side. “Working much too hard, I should say, getting experiments done on the evenings and weekends, while learning clinical radiology like the other residents,” Friedman said.
The university prepared a letter of retraction for the allegedly fraudulent articles about one month ago, Friedman said, but decided to delay contacting the publication so Slutsky would have the opportunity to submit the retraction himself.
“It was then that we heard from his attorney, who proposed a retraction wording which we did not find acceptable,” Friedman said, declining to characterize the differences between the two versions. “As it stands now, we are giving him a few more days to decide whether or not he can write a letter of retraction to convey the information we think should be conveyed to the journal. If not, we will go ahead.”
Friedman said the university has reported its initial findings to the Society of Nuclear Medicine and the Assn. of University Radiologists. He said those groups had given Slutsky two important financial awards that Slutsky cited as having helped pay for the studies that the university believes were fabricated.
Also informed of the university’s findings were the National Institutes of Health, which had helped pay for previous research by Slutsky. Friedman said Slutsky had received another NIH grant that was to have begun in July, but Slutsky resigned the grant when he left the university.
The American Lung Assn., the Squibb Foundation, the Veterans Administration, Technicare Corporation, the American Heart Assn. and the California Heart Assn. also have been contacted because they have been credited in the studies with supporting either the allegedly fraudulent research or other work done by Slutsky in the recent past, Friedman said.
Much Unsupervised Work
Asked whether the university ought to have uncovered the alleged frauds at an earlier date, Friedman pointed out that while Slutsky had been supervised while working as a trainee, he had worked relatively unsupervised later as an independent investigator.
“At the time that someone becomes an independent investigator and a lab leader, they are supposed to be responsible and socialized, if you will, into the standards of scientific practice,” he said.
Although there is a system of peer review when reports are submitted for publication, Friedman said journals might not have detected the alleged frauds because they only became evident when studying the body of work.
“There was some repetition of data between papers that didn’t really quite fit, and the statistics looked quite funny,” he said. Noting that investigators found inconsistencies between the data and the statistics drawn from them, Friedman said, “If Dr. Slutsky had been a better statistician, we might never have detected the problem.”
Friedman said the new committee named to investigate the estimated 120 research reports published by Slutsky in less than a decade is to report its findings to the dean of the Department of Medicine by June.
“The way these things were done, it looks as though there were valid papers, good research, followed by fraudulent research on the same thing,” Friedman said. “So that much of the fraudulent research produces conclusions that are not necessarily incorrect. It’s just that they are not supported by any real experiments.”
For that reason, Friedman said he did not believe that the alleged falsifications have harmed patient care.
As for Slutsky’s motives, Friedman said, “That’s really a mystery. As I said, if someone is not doing too well and feels he has to cheat in order to compete, in a sense you can understand that--not condone it, but understand.
“But if someone is doing very well and is very productive and successful, then why gild the lily? Why go further? I don’t understand it.”