Prolific University of Calgary doctor heads to B.C. after his team caught faking data

Dr. Cory Toth, who is a celebrated and prolific doctor, has had to retract nine University of Calgary studies that contained bogus data. ~ GRANT BLACK / POSTMEDIA NEWS

Dr. Cory Toth, who is a celebrated and prolific doctor, has had to retract nine University of Calgary studies that contained bogus data.
~ GRANT BLACK / POSTMEDIA NEWS

VANCOUVER _ In what may be a Canadian record, a celebrated and prolific doctor has retracted nine University of Calgary studies that contained bogus data.

In the latest in a string of retractions, Dr. Cory Toth has pulled two reports from the medical literature because data and figures were “manipulated” in his laboratory at the University of Calgary medical school.

“I can’t say whether it’s an official record, but we haven’t seen anyone else in Canada retract that many papers since we launched in 2010,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a U.S.-based group that shines light in some of academia’s darker corners.

The group alerted the University of Calgary to problems with several of Toth’s studies. Toth, former research director of the Calgary Chronic Pain Centre Clinic, received more than $2.3 million in research funding in his nine years at the medical school.

Toth resigned this spring after university investigators confirmed fudged and faked data in nine of his team’s studies. Toth moved to British Columbia, where he is now working as a neurologist at Burnaby Hospital.

Toth declined to be interviewed for this story, and responded to questions with a short email that blames his staff for the data manipulation. He said he spread himself “too thin” in Calgary and “failed to supervise” his laboratory activities properly.

“I was unable to determine that data provided to me was not performed in proper fashion,” says Toth.

The university is more forthcoming. In late 2012 a journal reviewing one of Toth’s studies “found suspicious data and asked the university to undertake a formal investigation,” says Dr. Glenda MacQueen, vice-dean of the University of Calgary’s medical school.

“The faculty did investigate, which led to the retraction of the submitted paper and one paper already published,” MacQueen said in an email response to questions. Outside observers were, however, more thorough than the faculty in assessing the problems with Toth’s studies.

“Subsequently, Retraction Watch identified other questionable data” and a complaint triggered a university “Committee of Investigation” process that began in May 2013, MacQueen said.

The committee concluded in March 2014 that “Toth did not have appropriate oversight of the data coming out of his lab,” said MacQueen. “The result was a finding of a breach of research integrity.” MacQueen said the investigators “could neither verify nor dispute” whether Toth’s lab staff provided him with figures that were “already manipulated without his knowledge; however, they found that his actions reflect a failure to adequately supervise and examine the work conducted in his lab.” She said the university will not release the investigators’ report “as it contains private, personal information.”

Toth left the university in March. While at the University of Calgary Toth received more than $2.3 million in research funding from diabetes and pain groups, drug companies, Alberta research agencies as well as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which is financed by Canadian taxpayers. In 2009 Toth received a five-year CIHR grant worth $600,752 to assess experimental treatments to reduce brain shrinkage and dementia associated with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. He was also a co-investigator on a CIHR trial that spent $251,316 assessing methadone as a treatment for chronic pain.

The nine studies Toth has retracted for data manipulation, fabrication and recycling were published between 2007 and 2012. MacQueen said “no human participants were involved” and the retracted research “does not influence patient care decisions.”

Burnaby Hospital’s neurology group website, which is copyrighted by Cory Toth Professional Corporation, says in 2012 Toth received Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Governor General of Canada. It says he has been a senior editor of several medical journals, has written extensively on chronic pain and has a collection of teaching awards. It does not mention the retracted studies attracting international attention on Retraction Watch, which is keeping a running tally.

The first retraction was issued in early 2013 when Toth, as corresponding author for a group of 12 researchers, retracted a study in the journal Diabetes saying the paper was submitted “without knowledge of inherent errors.”

Then this spring the journals Molecular Pain and Brain retracted two of Toth’s team studies for data manipulation and two more studies in Diabetes were retracted for image doctoring, “fabricated” figures, and using “older data not representative of the cohorts (of mice) studied.” Then this summer RETRACTED, in bold red type, was slapped on two papers in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, for data manipulation. The two most recent retractions, in the journal Neuroscience, are for “manipulated” figures and “faulty data” — bringing the total to nine.

MacQueen would not comment on whether the technicians and other researchers who worked on the retracted studies are still at the university, citing “privacy regulations.”

In his email message to Postmedia News Toth says has he has “serious remorse over lack of detection of these issues” prior to the studies’ publication. He says he moved to B.C.“to spend more time with my immediate family, and so that I can concentrate upon providing excellence in clinical care as a clinician.”

Federal research agencies like to say they are committed to being transparent about research misconduct, but will say little about the Toth case. CIHR spokesman David Coulombe declined to comment on the retractions or say whether the agency has asked Toth to return any of its funding. Karen Wallace, a senior adviser at the federal Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, also refused to comment citing the federal Privacy Act.

Officials at Fraser Health, the agency is in charge of Burnaby Hospital, said Toth “was forthcoming” about the retractions during interviews for his new job. “Our interview panel took this issue into consideration before offering the position to Dr. Toth based on his clinical expertise,” Dr. Dave Williams, program medical director at Fraser Health, said by email. Williams said Toth is not participating in any research activities at Fraser Health.

© COPYRIGHT – POSTMEDIA NEW
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