Not a Single One of Van Gool’s Studies has been Withdrawn
There were significant problems with three of Van Gool’s studies: there was no approval by the ethics committee, informed consent forms were missing, and research results were not fully written up, so that data cannot be checked or verified. In late 2014 a commission of inquiry ruled that there was no convincing evidence of fraud, or of fabrication and/or falsification of data. ‘However,’ the report concluded, ‘there is a strong suspicion of fraud when it is stated in publications that approval was given by the ethics committee but later this could not be shown to be the case.’

Moreover, Van Gool was careless in carrying out his research, which according to the committee has a ‘negative impact on the scientific value of the trials in question’. Some of those taking part in the trials did not have the type of tumour that the trial was targeting. And in many cases it was not clear whether patients had been examined in accordance with the protocols established for the trials. In any case data are often missing.

The inquiry found that the university should warn the publishers of professional journals in which Van Gool had published papers based on those trials. But to date, not a single paper has been withdrawn. That would prevent other scientists, whether or not they were working with human subjects, from basing their own research on Van Gool’s dubious data.

In at least seven papers published in six different journals, Van Gool and his co-authors describe the results of tumour vaccine trials. One of the papers even appeared after his departure from Leuven University Hospital. In that one Van Gool explained in detail the purpose of his trials, including those that have been called in question.

Stefaan Van Gool says that there is no reason to retract a paper. The data would still be valid. Wim Robberecht, vice rector at the University of Leuven, agrees with that. ‘The papers do not claim that the tumor vaccins cure patients. We looked at all papers and contacted the editors to inform them about the problems.’

Yet studies are often withdrawn from journals for similar or even less serious reasons. A few months ago, for instance, a study by Irish scientists relating to a rare case of cancer was withdrawn because the parents of the young patient had not given written consent for its publication. Earlier this year a study of a plant extract’s potential to protect the skin from UV light was also withdrawn. The Italian researchers had not sought an ethics committee’s approval for a trial involving human subjects, allegedly because they were unaware that such approval would be required.

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