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Max-Planck Society investigates misconduct

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7205.274 (Published 31 July 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:274
  1. Annette Tuffs Heidelberg
  1. Heidelberg, Germany

    The Max-Planck Society has set up a committee to investigate allegations of scientific misconduct involving one of its directors, Peter Seeburg, director at the Max-Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany.

    The allegation is that in 1979 Seeburg published false information in a scientific paper in the journal Nature (1979;281: 544-8), which described experiments resulting in the expression of human growth hormone in bacteria.

    Professor Seeburg confessed two months ago to publishing a falsehood (20 years after it appeared), when he was giving evidence in a US court case that is trying to determine the patency rights to the DNA for human growth hormone.

    The University of California is suing Genentech for $1.2bn (£750m) compensation, claiming that the company used the university's patented genetic material for experiments in early 1979, which led to the creation of Genentech's blockbuster growth hormone drug Protropin. Professor Seeburg had been crucial in developing the drug, because he worked on human growth hormone, first at the University of California and then at Genentech.

    In court, Professor Seeburg admitted that on the night of 31 December 1978 he went to the university laboratory where he used to work, removed a sample of human growth hormone DNA, and took it to Genentech.

    He then allegedly used this stolen material in spring 1979 to help Genentech develop the bacterial synthesis process that produced Protropin. He told the court that he did not say in the Nature paper that the university DNA was used, because of the potential legal implications. His former colleagues at Genentech, however, denied in court that the DNA from the University of California was ever used in their landmark experiments.

    The two opposing sides, Professor Seeburg and his former colleagues, outlined their respective positions in correspondence to Nature in May (1999;399;298). Professor Seeburg referred to his falsehood in his 1979 paper as a “technical inaccuracy” that had no bearing on the conclusions of the Nature paper, which were correct. He justified his theft by pointing out that 100000 children worldwide have been helped by Genentech's swift development of human growth hormone.

    His former colleagues from Genentech, coauthors of the original Nature paper, denied that the data submitted to Nature had been falsified, claiming that it was technically impossible to fabricate data from similar work, as Professor Seeburg had alleged in his correspondence. To prove this, Genentech published the laboratory notebooks on the web (www.gene.com/notebooks/).

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