‘MTL knew’: Misconduct allegations independently corroborated in private correspondence to special committee

March 6, 2023, 1:36 a.m.

The Daily has obtained an email from a Stanford professor to Jerry Yang, the chair of the Board of Trustees, corroborating and expanding upon a Feb. 17 Daily article in which four high-level Genentech scientists alleged that an internal review of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research uncovered fabrication and that Tessier-Lavigne, when confronted with the findings of the review, declined to retract his paper. Copies of the email circulated among a handful of faculty last week.

Tessier-Lavigne adamantly denies any wrongdoing. The Daily is aware of the identity of the professor who penned the email to Yang but is withholding it to prevent retaliation.

The Daily has also learned that Ken Schultz, chair of the faculty senate, called Yang in the wake of the newest allegations. According to one faculty member who was informed about the call and whom The Daily granted anonymity to speak freely about conversations held in confidence, the call was to express the concern of several senators about Tessier-Lavigne’s capacity to lead. Schultz declined to comment on the contents of the call.

The professor’s email contained the account of a fifth Genentech executive, who worked for the company 15 years at the VP level and whom The Daily had not interviewed. The Daily was later able to confirm that the executive would have some knowledge of the events that took place. Consistent with previous accounts, the professor wrote that “researchers at Genentech were having trouble replicating the results from the 2009 Nature paper” and chose to begin a review in 2011.

The email expanded on what The Daily reported. “Apparently, they then asked Anatoly [Nikolaev, the first author on the paper,] to repeat a key experiment from the paper himself, but when he did his data seemed too perfect to be true. They then switched the reagents they were giving him to use in the experiment but didn’t tell him — when he came back with the same result again, they knew he was falsifying the data.”

Nikolaev, the Columbia Ph.D. who departed Genentech in 2011 to attend community college, and Tessier-Lavigne, who “supervised or co-supervised all experiments,” according to the paper, have denied that there are any issues with the paper, which also appears to contain several visible duplications of images.

APP binds DR6 to trigger axon pruning and neuron death via distinct caspases Figures 1 and 5 show two similar-looking frames.
Screenshot and annotations by Matthew Schrag from a PubPeer post.
APP binds DR6 to trigger axon pruning and neuron death via distinct caspases Figures 9 and 17 show two similar-looking frames.
Screenshot and annotations by Matthew Schrag from a PubPeer post.

Nikolaev issued an “emphatic denial” in response to the account given to the special committee and said the allegations were “utterly and completely false.” Tessier-Lavigne declined an interview request. His lawyer wrote in an emailed statement: “We will be providing the Special Committee with a full and corroborated refutation of all the allegations.”

When asked if he would say what corroborating witnesses or evidence he had, Tessier-Lavigne declined to comment, but Richard Scheller, a former top Genentech executive whom colleagues describe as a close friend of Tessier-Lavigne, emailed the next day that he did “not recall any discussion at the RRC, or anywhere else at Genentech, that Dr. Nikolaev, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, or anyone associated with the APP/DR6 study falsified data that were reported in the 2009 Nature paper, or that they behaved improperly in any way.” Scheller sat on the research review committee, and two Genentech scientists told The Daily that they’d had conversations with Scheller about the 2011 review and its alleged finding of data falsification.

Scheller has denied multiple requests for interviews over the past several months, both over email and in person. Scheller’s wife, Susan McConnell, a biology professor who has co-taught a course with Tessier-Lavigne and helped recruit him to Stanford, declined a request to comment.

Genentech previously told The Daily 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,” a sentence that Tessier-Lavigne has quoted several times in his defense. On his lab website and in public comments, Tessier-Lavigne has not included the qualifying sentence from the same Genentech statement, in which the company acknowledges that “given that these events happened many years ago … our current records may not be complete.”

The email builds on the accounts presented in the Daily article from two senior scientists and two scientists who also served as senior executives, all of whom spoke independently and gave consistent accounts of the internal review. One of them sat on the research review committee that conducted the review of Tessier-Lavigne’s work.

In the email, the professor named seven scientists who could provide additional background to Yang and “can say there was discussion of fraud/fakery and MTL knew.” (Several of them had declined to comment for The Daily’s mid-February piece).

It is unclear what the special committee will do with the information presented in the email. Yang, who sits on the special committee and is co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo! Inc., forwarded The Daily’s interview request to the special committee spokesperson.

The Daily has confirmed that the committee only reached out to Science, the journal where several of the papers identified for investigation last year were published, for documents two weeks ago and has yet to schedule an interview with its editorial staff to confirm Tessier-Lavigne’s account from last November. None of The Daily’s sources for its Feb. 17 article has been interviewed by the committee. And, while the committee said that it was consulting “an expert in image forensics,” some of the world’s foremost experts — including Elisabeth Bik, Mike Rossner, Jana Christopher, Matthew Schrag and Davo Vaux — have not been contacted or heard of anyone who has. Aidan Ryan, a senior vice president for crisis communications at Edelman and spokesperson for the committee, would not name the expert the committee was consulting.

Ryan also would not say what standard for evidence collection and research misconduct the committee is working with, referring The Daily to a written statement that said the committee would be following “Stanford’s values of excellence and fairness.” Ryan has declined to answer several questions about whether the policies in the faculty Research Policy Handbook would be applied.

Regarding the allegedly altered images in several papers he coauthored, Tessier-Lavigne has said that he “was not involved in any way in the generation or presentation of the panels that have been queried” and was “included as an author on these publications solely to recognize his contribution in providing necessary reagents for the research by other authors.” Some scientists have pointed out that the university’s Research Policy Handbook, in effect for decades, states “defense of minimal participation…is entirely inapplicable when one is coauthor of the disputed work.”

One professor who spoke with Yang following The Daily’s most recent article told The Daily: “I got the feeling from Jerry that unless they proved MTL was directly involved in the falsification, they would be unlikely to take action. But of course MTL would not be in the lab or directly involved in making figures for the paper — that was the postdoc’s job.” The professor spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about conversations had in confidence.

Meanwhile, frustration has mounted with Tessier-Lavigne among some faculty members.

While some had already publicly called on Tessier-Lavigne to step down, this latest development has increased pressure. Tessier-Lavigne would not say whether he planned to step aside.

After the Faculty Senate meeting on Feb. 23 during which Tessier-Lavigne defended his work, saying “There was no fraud. There was no investigation. There was no coverup,” a Daily reporter overheard a senator remark, “It’s just so much bad news, every day. . . . What I’m concerned about is whether he can lead.”

The Daily has obtained several emails from faculty to Tessier-Lavigne and Yang expressing discomfort with Tessier-Lavigne’s decision to use his official lab website and a Stanford email list to send out the statement entitled “False allegations in the Stanford Daily.”

One faculty senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, told The Daily that they and several other senators are planning to approach the board to ask Tessier-Lavigne to step aside.

Several senators and other faculty members with ties to the board, who requested anonymity to speak about their superior, independently told The Daily that they had expected the committee to issue a partly exculpatory report soon so that Tessier-Lavigne could claim vindication and then step down while maintaining his innocence. They said that after the most recent allegations they found the possibility of an exculpatory report remote.

Tessier-Lavigne’s defenders include some members of the special committee investigating his work, especially Yang, according to several faculty senators. Seven scientists wrote a January Letter to the Editor urging “caution in rushing to judgment on MTL case.” All seven appear to have potential conflicts of interest that were undisclosed in the letter which identified its authors “as faculty members and principal investigators in contemporary biological laboratories.”

Robert Malenka, one co-signatory of the letter, has worked at several institutions alongside Tessier-Lavigne, starting at the University of California, San Francisco in the nineties. He served on the scientific review board of Renovis, a company Tessier-Lavigne cofounded, for eight years.

Richard Scheller, the former chief scientific officer and head of research and development at Genentech who emailed after Tessier-Lavigne was asked if he had corroborating accounts, has personal ties to several of the letter’s authors and is considered a close friend of Tessier-Lavigne, according to former colleagues of both men.

Susan McConnell, the biology professor who co-signed the letter, is Scheller’s wife. She was also a postdoctoral researcher with Carla Shatz, a scientist who has published with Tessier-Lavigne and who also co-signed the letter.

William Newsome, another co-signer, attended graduate school with Scheller and has served on the editorial board of Current Opinion in Neurobiology with Tessier-Lavigne for two decades, ever since both were appointed in 2000.

Signatories Aaron Gitler and Liqun Luo serve with Scheller on the scientific review board for Alector. Gitler has also published a paper with Tessier-Lavigne. Scheller sits on the board of Maze Therapeutics, a company Gitler co-founded.

Kang Shen, another co-signer of the letter, worked with Tessier-Lavigne as the co-author of a paper and is a member of his tight scientific orbit. Shen was a researcher in Cori Bargmann’s lab at UCSF, which was closely aligned with Tessier-Lavigne’s lab. Bargmann has been quoted in a number of glowing profiles of Tessier-Lavigne and the two are publicly close. In 2013, Bargmann and Tessier-Lavigne hosted a joint lab reunion that Shen attended. (She also serves on the Current Opinion in Neurobiology editorial board with Tessier-Lavigne and Newsome). Shen has also co-authored a paper with Gitler.

Since The Daily’s most recent article exposing allegations that Tessier-Lavigne kept findings of scientific falsifications from becoming public, only Newsome has spoken publicly, telling The Washington Post, “I see nothing alarming here.” Gitler told The Daily that he was waiting for the committee’s report.

In response to The Daily’s comment request, Tessier-Lavigne’s lawyer asked “are you including comments from faculty members who have confidence in Marc’s leadership?” The Daily offered an opportunity for Tessier-Lavigne to provide faculty members who would speak in favor of his leadership. One faculty member, Chair of Radiology Garry Gold, emailed The Daily shortly after to express “confidence in Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s leadership” and later wrote that “the Board of Trustees setting up an independent investigation into the allegations that have been raised is an example of transparent and responsible leadership.”

Tessier-Lavigne’s lawyer provided the names of three faculty senators who would support the president’s leadership. All three said that they were awaiting the findings of the investigation and that the community should do the same.

“I think we need to sit tight and wait. And until then, MTL is more than able to do the job,” wrote Professor Judith Goldstein.

Theo Baker is the Vol. 263 Spotlight Investigations Editor. A frosh from Washington, D.C., he is the youngest ever recipient of a George Polk Award. Contact [email protected] for encrypted email. Find him on Twitter @tab_delete.

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