Paper Chased: Cancer-vaccine study is retracted

A promising cancer treatment has been dealt a setback, as the authors of a key paper have reluctantly retracted their report.

Three years ago, Alexander Kugler of the University of Göttingen in Germany and his colleagues described limited success with a new cancer-vaccine strategy in Nature Medicine (SN: 3/4/00, p. 149: Fused cells hold promise of cancer vaccines). The researchers had taken tumor cells from people with kidney cancer, fused them to the patients’ own immune cells, and injected the combination back into the patients. In several of the volunteers, this stimulated an immune response against secondary tumors and led to complete remission.

Criticism of the study’s quality and ethics emerged, however, and the University of Göttingen launched an investigation. In November 2002, officials there concluded that Kugler, but not his coauthors, was guilty of negligence and that the paper didn’t meet standards of good scientific practice. For example, the university’s ethics committee hadn’t approved the human experimentation.

Kugler’s coauthors initially resisted retracting the paper because they felt the conclusions of their study remained valid, but the editors of Nature Medicine eventually convinced the investigators that the large number of errors in the published data and ethical lapses by Kugler warranted the action.

Other researchers stress that the retraction, published in the September Nature Medicine, doesn’t negate the potential of using fused tumor and immune cells to stimulate a patient’s immune system against cancer.

“There are plenty of papers . . . that show in animal studies that the approach is valid,” says Richard Vile of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Work on the strategy continues. In fact, in the journal issue that carries the retraction, Vile and his colleagues describe a novel process for fusing cancer and immune cells.


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