Munich

An investigation into alleged scientific misconduct at a German university has fallen far behind schedule, prompting fears that the country lacks the mechanisms needed to handle such cases.

Officials at the University of Göttingen promised 10 months ago that the investigation would be completed by September 2001. But they now admit that they are no closer to releasing its findings.

The investigation concerns a clinical trial in which patients with kidney cancer were injected with a vaccine made up of tumour cells fused with cells from the immune system.

Alleged irregularities halted a vaccine trial that had reported tumour regression. Credit: A. KUGLER ET AL. NATURE MED.

The researchers conducting the trial claimed that the treatment caused dramatic regression of secondary tumours (A. Kugler et al. Nature Med. 6, 332–336; 2000). But the trial was suspended last year after accusations of deception and careless clinical practice were levelled in the German media at two members of the team: Alexander Kugler, then at the University of Göttingen, and Gernot Stuhler at the University of Tübingen (see Nature 412, 8; 2001). These claims are disputed by the researchers.

Horst Kern, president of the University of Göttingen, says that the investigation into the trial has been delayed primarily by data-protection rules covering patient information. Without access to the complete files of all 18 patients involved in the trial, the external task force looking into the allegations has been unable to proceed, he says.

“We find the situation unsatisfactory,” Kern says, “but we do what we can to push things along.” He declines to say when the investigation will be completed.

Clinical research in Germany has come under close scrutiny since 1997, when two biomedical researchers were accused of fabricating data in scores of papers.

Eberhard Hildt, a former postdoc at the University of Ulm, who first raised the alarm over the 1997 scandal, says it is in the interests of the scientific community for the latest investigation to be completed quickly. “Data-protection problems alone are no excuse,” he says. “There seem to be no similar problems with patients' data when it comes to publishing a paper.”