Nitish V. Thakor

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Misconduct by Nitish Thakor

Director of SINAPSE, National University of Singapore, and Professor at Johns Hopkins University

 

 

Nitish V. Thakor is Director of SINAPSE, National University of Singapore, and a Professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is a collaborator of Singapore Dementia Consortium members, implicated in misconduct (click here for more on the Dementia Consortium). The following is the result of an analysis of Thakor’s work (click here for the full report on Thakor).

 

 

1. Either illegal use of human tissue or falsely presenting data from experiments

Thakor and others bought and ‘obtained’ human tissue from suppliers outside Singapore. One of two possibilities exist, both problematic:

 

Possibility 1: That the tissue used is not human because it is not identifiable. This does not appear to be the case, particularly since a 3 year old patient was specified as one of the sources of the human tissue used in the experiments. In any case, if the tissue used is indeed not human, but Thakor told us in the article that it is, then he misinformed us.

 

Possibility 2: That the tissue used is human and identifiable. Then Thakor has engaged in illegal trade and use of human tissue, and unethical conduct and reporting of research using human tissue.

 

 

2. $7.3 million grant to show apparently not much, again and again

 

Thakor is the primary recipient of a National Institutes of Health (USA) grant since 2003 and until 2023. The sum of money he received from this grant alone until last year is about 7.3 million USD. With this grant, he was supposed to investigate brain injury after cardiac arrest in rats and new ways to treat this condition, or to decrease brain injury after cardiac arrest.

 

The only model of cardiac arrest used by Thakor is asphyxia. This means clamping the rat’s windpipe for a period of time to stop the heart from beating. This is certainly not the only rat model available for cardiac arrest. Whether this is the best model for cardiac arrest to rely on exclusively in such a generous grant is open to debate.

 

The outcome of the grant thus far, all the work Thakor has produced with various groups around the world and over a period of about 17 years, consists of showing that we can measure brain electrical activity, blood flow in the brain, and a few basic tests of nerve function to assess brain injury after asphyxia in rats. Sometimes in these experiments, Thakor uses hypothermia as a potential treatment, a way to prevent or decrease brain injury after cardiac arrest. Hypothermia means cooling the animal after asphyxia to decrease brain injury; early descriptions from the 1940’s of this potential neuroprotective treatment are attributed to Fay. The experiments by Thakor relevant to the grant are reported in 21 articles that appear to have been duplicated and re-duplicated since 2005. That is almost all the work Thakor has produced with 7.3 million USD. Needless to say, we have known about these methods for quite some time. 

 

Work not directly relevant to the grant, but using the grant’s money, was produced by Thakor and published in 5 articles. The work reported in these articles is not related to the grant under discussion, it is directly related to other grants received by Thakor, but he may not mention those other sources of funding. In contrast, apparently duplicated work that is directly relevant to the grant, but not mentioning the grant as a source of funding, was published by Thakor in 5 other articles.

 

Inconsistent scientific messages are in the work produced by Thakor related to the grant, or not apparently related to the grant but using money from it. For example, he may inform us in one article that measuring brain electrical activity is not good enough if we do not provoke a response from the brain, by stimulating a nerve in the arm or leg. But then he goes ahead and publishes what appear to be duplicated articles measuring only brain electrical activity after asphyxia without stimulation. Or he may inform us that pharmacological agents are not the best research subject to prevent brain injury after cardiac arrest, but then he tests pharmacological agents in experiments. One pharmacological agent Thakor tested is a drug to dissolve clots, a common, well-known, vital, and invariable treatment for many cases of cardiac arrest.

 

In addition to the grant from NIH, Thakor and the groups he worked with received money from Singapore, China, Korea, and United Arab Emirates.

 

3. Results apparently same same but different amputees

 

In at least three articles published in 2020, Thakor and others measured brain electrical activity while stimulating nerves in the bodies of amputees (individuals who lost an arm or leg, for example in a road traffic accident). 

 

The dataset appears analogous, similar or the same, for these three articles. In other words, it appears Thakor used results from overlapping experiments as if they were separate – and did not tell us about it. This is not OK, see Problematic ethics for more.

 

 

4. Controlling an apparently unknown current

 

In at least two articles, Thakor describes a model and shows data on artificial or machine-generated ‘sensory feedback’ to control a prosthetic arm. However, it is impossible or exceedingly difficult to reconstruct this model from what Thakor chose to disclose in the articles. In other words, we cannot really tell how this machine-generated ‘sensory feedback’ was calculated. That is fine if it were an advertisement for products designed by companies owned by Thakor or in which Thakor is a board member. But it is not an advertisement, the unclear model was published in scientific articles, which means we should be able to re-recreate the same technology from what is in the articles. It would have been very easy, encouraged even, for Thakor to publish the computer code or script controlling this technology, or a graphical user interface: a neat little window where we can plug in the variables, and which gives out the result of the calculation using Thakor’s model. As far as I can tell, there is no such script nor graphical user interface. Instead, the reader has a pile of equations which apparently cannot be solved with the information provided.

 

 

5. Other apparent irregularities

 

Duplication and obfuscation (muddying the waters) appears to be the norm in Thakor’s work, and includes an inordinately large number of conference presentations showing the same or similar data and over periods of many years or even decades. For example:

- The grant received by Thakor from the National Institutes of Health to investigate neuroprotection after cardiac arrest produced a large number of conference abstracts, presentations, and posters (all on the same subject again and again, as discussed in section 2.). The total number of publications, including the articles mentioned, is about ninety (90). He calls the same thing (brain injury) by many different names in these publications, including ‘global ischemia’, ‘global cerebral ischemia’, ‘global hypoxia-ischemia’, ‘hypoxic-ischemic brain injury’, ‘global hypoxic-ischemic brain injury’,  ‘asphyxial cardiac arrest’, or ‘brain injury from cardiac arrest’. Science is about accuracy, we try to agree on calling the same thing by the same name – so we know what we’re talking about. If one is duplicating articles, one may have motivation to call the same thing by a different name, as if it were different.

- Work discussed in section 4. above on control of prosthetic arms was apparently duplicated in seven conference presentations, and perhaps two articles in addition to the two mentioned above.

- Duplication of work in investigating the use of rare earth elements in the diagnosis and treatment of various conditions. For example, in one article, we are not informed which rare earth element was used, instead a whole group of elements is referred to. In another analogous article (showing the same or similar data), the element is specified. At least three conference presentations were produced by Thakor and others discussing the same work. The number of articles showing apparently similar work is perhaps and at least seven.

- Duplication of work over several years, investigating the use of a cooling device to reduce nerve injury in patients receiving chemotherapy.

- Along with Shih-Cheng Yen of the Dementia Consortium (implicated in misconduct), Thakor published no less than three and up to five articles showing apparently analogous work, and about six conference presentations. This work is about urinary bladder control.

Funding reporting by Thakor is puzzling. For example:

- Articles published under one grant are not related to it but to another grant, as discussed in section 2.

- Thakor reports the National Institutes of Health grant discussed in section 2. above as ‘pending’ in his CV. But it is not pending, it is active.

- Also in Thakor’s CV (see the report for references), he mentions another National Institutes of Health Grant as his and ‘active’, but he is not the principal investigator for this grant.

- Thakor mentions several ‘NUS’ or National University of Singapore grants in publications produced under the grant for cardiac arrest, discussed in section 2. ‘NUS’ grant probably refer to grants from the Singapore Ministry of Education, but there are no NUS nor Ministry of Education grants mentioned in his CV.

- Thakor published at least five conference presentations on how smelling something nice makes us feel nice. In my opinion and backed by basic neurophysiology, this work is invalid even as ‘neuromarketing’ as claimed by Thakor; not least because it claims, among other nonsense, that the Singaporean participants were importantly ‘Chinese’, disregarding Singaporean culture. As if being Chinese would change how nice something smells. In any case, we cannot tell if Thakor received money to do this work from Procter and Gamble, or A*STAR Singapore, or both Procter and Gamble and A*STAR Singapore.

 

Ethics approval numbers for human and animal experiments are rarely (almost never) reported by Thakor. See Problematic Ethics for more.

 

Affiliation reported by Thakor is not transparent. Though Thakor is in principle affiliated with National University of Singapore and Johns Hopkins University, he managed to report 16 different combinations of affiliations in publications produced between 2018 and 2021. That’s 16 different combinations of affiliation in less than three years. See Problematic ethics for more. In addition, it should be noted that authors are mixed and matched in the various apparently duplicated publications produced by Thakor.

 

Conflict of interest declaration by Thakor is very puzzling indeed. Though he owns, co-owns, or is a board member on at least three companies, directly related to the work he is producing with public funds, Thakor very rarely mentions a conflict or competing interest in his publications. For example, of 90 publications (the majority conference presentations) produced in the context of the cardiac arrest grant Thakor is receiving from the National Institutes of Health, only one (1) article and one (1) conference presentation mention a competing interest. This is also very strange because Thakor has at least eight (8) patents related to this topic.

 

Strange citations are on a review apparently plagiarized by Thakor (a review talks about a scientific subject without presenting novel experimental data). The two reviews by Thakor have identical titles, but the full text for one review is inaccessible. Both reviews claim in the abstract to contribute “…profound knowledge…” to the field of devices generating electricity from heat, to be worn by humans (for biosensors). Funnily enough, other authors refer to the inaccessible review (for which there is no full text) as if it is published in Science, a reputable science journal. These authors do not refer to the original review. Neither reviews, not the full-text one nor the one that exists only as a title and abstract, are published in Science.

A large proportion of Thakor's publications are not open access, despite initiatives at National University of Singapore and Johns Hopkins University to the contrary, and despite generous funding.

 

 

Misconduct by Thakor mentioned is here is by no means exhaustive. I am carefully analyzing doctoral theses supervised by Thakor at National University of Singapore and Johns Hopkins University.