By Amanda Gardner
THURSDAY, January 12, 2012 (Health.com) — The University of Connecticut has notified 11 scientific journals that research on the potential health benefits of red wine led by one of its faculty members appears to contain falsified and fabricated data.
Following a three-year investigation, a university review board has concluded that Dipak K. Das, Ph.D., the director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the university's school of medicine, in Farmington, manipulated research data in at least 145 instances. The misconduct spanned seven years and 26 journal articles, according to a report issued by the board.
"We have a responsibility to correct the scientific record and inform peer researchers across the country," said the university's interim vice president for health affairs, Philip Austin, in a statement.
Das is well-known for his research into the heart-healthy properties of resveratrol, a compound found in red wine and certain plants that is now sold widely as a nutritional supplement. Das has led or participated in dozens of published studies on resveratrol, many of them funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The University of Connecticut launched its investigation after the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, received an anonymous tip in 2008.
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The review board's report details numerous alleged instances in which Das improperly combined results from several experiments by altering a type of digital data readout known as a Western blot. In at least some cases this made the data seem more coherent, the report suggests, although university officials said it's unclear whether the alterations were enough to change the overall conclusions of the research.
The University of Connecticut Health Center has begun dismissal proceedings against Das. Administrators have also frozen all external funding to Das's laboratory and turned down $890,000 in federal grants awarded to the researcher.
Das did not respond to an email requesting comment. When contacted by the review board he denied any knowledge of the image manipulation, but given the evidence to the contrary the board concluded that his "statement lacks credibility," according to the report.
Resveratrol researchers say the university's allegations aren't likely to have a resounding effect on the field as a whole. Das's focus, heart disease, is just one of the health problems researchers are trying to target with resveratrol, says Joseph A. Baur, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
"This will cause a little chaos, but Dr. Das's research was very much in the area of heart health, so the broader field is still on a solid foundation," says Baur, the coauthor of a 2011 review article on resveratrol. "Research is not being brought to a screeching halt. The field will go on, even though this is something you never want to see."
Researchers in labs around the world are studying resveratrol for its possible effects against cancer, obesity, diabetes, inflammation, and aging. The compound has been making headlines since initial research showed that it helped obese mice live longer, says James Smoliga, Ph.D., one of Baur's coauthors and an associate professor of physiology at High Point University, in High Point, N.C.
Much of the research to date has been promising, Smoliga says, but most studies—like those led by Das—involve only laboratory experiments and animal trials. Few clinical trials have been conducted in humans, although several long-term studies are now under way.