Friday, February 13, 2009

Whither OMP?

In early 2007, the milk producer Mengniu (蒙牛) started selling a new, high-end milk product branded as Telunsu (特仑苏). It advertised it as containing a new additive OMP, or Osteoblast Milk Protein, which benefits bone growth in human body. It was hailed as a breakthrough.

On March 23, 2007, Fang Zhouzi wrote in a newspaper column that such a claim could not be valid. The term OMP appeared to be an invented name that did not exist in scientific literature. Even if such a protein existed, he said, it would not have any benefit as no proteins could survive the digestion process to affect bone growth in human bodies.

A month later, Fang Zhouzi learned from a patent application by Mengniu that the so-called OMP is most likely to be IGF-1, or Insulin-like Growth Factors, a well known protein. While IGF-1 exists naturally in milk products, it appeared that Mengniu is also using it as an additive to "enhance" the value of their product. Indeed, the Telunsu brand is selling at a much higher price than regular milk. However, milk with rich IGF-1 content could also impose health risk such as cancer.

As the Telunsu milk is steadily gaining market share in China, Fang Zhouzi's warning was ignored. For its part, Mengniu denies that OMP is IGF-1 but refuses to disclose its chemical composition. The company insists that it is a product of their own innovation.

It took almost two years. On February 11, 2009, the government finally issued an order to Mengniu to stop using the additive. The order stated that neither OMP nor IGF-1 has been approved as a food additive and their safety is not established.

Mengniu changes its story in an instant. It now claims that OMP is not IGF-1, but another well-known protein called MBP, or Milk Basic Protein. Ignoring its previous claim of its own innovation, the company now says that MBP has been widely used in Japan, America, and Europe for decades.

However, Fang Zhouzi insists that he has enough evidence that Mengniu's OMP is indeed IGF-1. Meanwhile, the Telunsu brand milk is being pulled from supermarkets in many major cities, although no formal recall has been issued. Mengniu's stock is also suffering major losses.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Scandal at Zhejiang University

Last October, a netter wrote to New Thread to report a case of multiple submission in Zhejiang University (浙江大学). It was then expanded into forgery as papers describing different experiments were found to contain the exact same set of data. By December, another netter did a series of study of papers published by the group and concluded that massive and systematic unethical practices exist, including forgery, plagiarism, and multiple submissions. The case finally received media attention this week after several international journals recalled the questionable papers. As of now, the number of questionable papers has reached 16.

The group in question is led by an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering by the name of Li Lianda (李连达) and concentrated in the study of certain traditional Chinese medicines. Li Lianda claims that he lives in Beijing and only travels to Zhejiang University sporadically and therefore did not know the existence of these papers, although all the papers bear his name and some identified him as the communicating author. He also accused the exposure of the case as a conspiracy by his rivals.

The president of Zhejiang University disclosed results of its investigation, which completely exonerated Li Lianda. The investigation put the entire responsibility of wrongdoings on a junior researcher who it says has published the papers without the knowledge of his coauthors. The junior researcher wrote a lengthy self-criticizing report on his own and was fired by the university.

The case has received such attention that Fang Zhouzi was featured on the evening news by Beijing Television. The video can be seen (with IE only) here. Fang Zhouzi does not believe that such a massive fraud could be done entirely by a single individual without the knowledge of his colleagues. International journals usually require the signatures of all coauthors during the submission process.

Cloning Human Embryos Exposes its Researcher

"A research team at Shandong Stem Cell Engineering Research Center has successfully cloned five human blastulas." Thus reported China Daily. The result was hailed as a major breakthrough in stem cell research, at least in China. However, it becomes immediately clear that the principle researcher of this project is more interesting in media discussion than the result itself.

Li Jianyuan(李建远), the chief of the laboratory which performed the research, has a resume that included a Ph.D. from a "Nobel Medical Institute" in America. At first, Li Jianyuan has refused to disclose the exact name of the institute in English as many interested parties, including Fang Zhouzi, failed to locate any accredited school bearing a similar name. More recently, Li Jianyuan produced a certificate bearing the name cited above, which purported to locate in California. However, an exhaustive search in California state record database failed to show such an institute either. Based on other relevant information, Fang Zhouzi concluded that the certificate is most likely a product by a Chinese-American individual who did not even bother to formally register his "school."

It is also established that Li Jianyuan has never traveled abroad and therefore could not have received Ph. D. training in America. Li Jianyuan explained that the degree was a result of a research paper he submitted along with some recommendation letters. He claimed that he has not taken it seriously himself either. Yet it did not stop him from using the Ph.D. title in his various versions of resumes and signature lines in his published papers.

As more information about Li Jianyuan surfaced, it became clear that Li Jianyuan not only did not possess any Ph.D. degree, he has likely forged a master degree certificate as well. In fact, chances are that he had never received a four-year regular college education. It is amazing to see how far he had achieved in China's academia with such a spotty history.

Talking about Shi Yigong's Salary

There is a usual routine in Chinese media in praising patriotic scholars returning from abroad to serve the motherland. Inevitably, they are described as giving up privileged academic positions, luxury houses, and fancy cars for a presumably much lesser environment in China. The description might have had some truth in it in the past couple of decades but it has gradually lost its base as China is more and more willing to spend big money luring oversea talents.

The most recent media star Professor Shi Yigong is being described in the same manner. Before returning to China, Shi Yigong was the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. So it is true that he had given up a lot in returning. He was made a professor and associated dean at Tsinghua University, one of the most privileged school in China. As the media campaign on his sacrifice continued, his salary at Tsinghua University became the talk of town.

A professor at the same college as Shi Yigong at Tshinghua University disclosed that Shi Yigong's salary is about 1.7 million RMB, which is roughly more than 200,000 in USD. If this figure is true, his salary will be at least compatible with what he earned at Princeton and more than ten times of other professors in the same Chinese school. So much for the sacrifice.

The issue received world-wide attention. A news report by Nature initially quoted the 1.7 million figure in describing how China is attracting top talents. The story drew a firestorm in its online comments and the magazine was forced to apologize and revise its content to exclude the exact figure.

Shi Yigong's colleague at Peking University, Professor Rao Yi, claimed that his salary is actually less than one million in RMB. Shi Yigong and Tsinghua University chose to remain silent. Fang Zhouzi is advocating for an open policy regarding salaries in public schools. He used examples of public schools in America disclosing professor salaries to illustrate that concerns of privacy do not apply in such a situation. Tsinghua University, like pretty much every other school in China, is a public and national institute.

Lately, Fang Zhouzi had been invited to present his case in a radio talk show.