Former NCSU chemistry professor defends research, journal article

jneff@newsobserver.comMarch 27, 2014 


N.C. State University chemistry professor Dr. Stephan Franzen


  • Correction

    A Jan. 19 front-page story incorrectly stated that former NCSU professors Daniel Feldheim and Bruce Eaton had patented their process to use RNA to manufacture tiny metallic crystals following their 2004 article in Science. NCSU applied for the patent in 2004, listing the scientists as inventors entitled to a portion of any royalties. The patent was pending while a dispute over research misconduct blew up inside the chemistry department in 2005 and 2006. NCSU abandoned the patent application in 2007 after Eaton and Feldheim left NCSU.

    SomaLogic, a Colorado biotech firm, had acquired a portfolio of Eaton’s patents before Eaton joined NCSU in 2001. The story incorrectly said the patents were acquired after publication of the 2004 Science article.

A former N.C. State University chemistry professor at the center of research misconduct allegations says he stands by his work that has been criticized by federal investigators and the university’s internal review.

Daniel Feldheim was one of three authors of a groundbreaking 2004 paper in the journal Science that was the subject of “Bad Chemistry,” a two-part News & Observer series published in January. The articles chronicled years of struggle by Stefan Franzen, an NCSU chemistry professor, to correct what he came to see as false research by two former colleagues, Feldheim and Bruce Eaton.

In a recent letter to The News & Observer, Feldheim criticized the N&O articles and stood behind his work.

“Our work with RNA and palladium was an exciting, albeit small, step in a new direction for this field of science,” Feldheim wrote. “Several students have reproduced the original work and we stand by our original interpretation of the results and our right to publish them.”

Feldheim criticized the N&O’s coverage as sensational, biased and inaccurate. His complaints included an error in the story regarding a patent application that the newspaper is correcting today.

The N&O repeatedly sought comment from Feldheim before publication through voice mail, email, the U.S. mail and a spokesman for the University of Colorado, where he teaches. Feldheim first wrote to the N&O earlier this month; he did not agree to a telephone interview and communicated only via email.

According to a 2013 report to Congress by the inspector general of the National Science Foundation, Feldheim, Eaton and then-graduate student Lina Gugliotti “recklessly falsified their work.”

The short report about the inspector general’s investigation, which awaits final action by the NSF director, did not identify the professors or the work, but described a scenario at a North Carolina university identical to the NCSU case. Eaton has confirmed the case is the subject of the report.

The investigation

The Science article was published in May 2004. Later that year, Franzen joined Eaton and Feldheim in landing a private $1 million grant that promised to produce world-changing inventions. Scientists could use RNA, molecules that act as genetic messengers within cells, to create super high-strength materials or endless supplies of clean energy from water, they said.

As research progressed, Franzen became convinced that the foundation of the project, the 2004 Science article, was based on false data. Franzen wrote a letter resigning from the project, precipitating legal threats and a bitter battle in the arcane journals of research chemistry.

In 2008, an internal NCSU investigation concluded that the original paper contained false data and departed from acceptable scientific practices. The investigation stopped short of finding research misconduct, concluding that Feldheim had acted carelessly, not intentionally or recklessly. The university referred the matter to National Science Foundation and asked the authors to correct the scientific record.

In 2013, the NSF’s inspector general completed its investigation, relying on the laboratory notebooks kept by Gugliotti, who conducted many of the experiments for Eaton and Feldheim. She was listed as co-author of the 2004 Science article.

“The student’s lab notebooks, which described some experiments in great detail, lacked documentation to support the pertinent claim discussed in the article,” according to the NSF report to Congress. “Although both faculty members claimed to have reviewed the raw data, we concluded that the minimal raw data that existed in fact contradicted the pertinent claim in the article.”

Feldheim said that the NSF has yet to issue its final determination in the case, “so you would be false in reporting that they have.”

Criticizing the N&O

Feldheim pointed out that the N&O wrongly wrote that he and Eaton had patented the underlying process and compounds used in the 2004 Science article. As is the standard practice for academic inventors, the university applied for the patent in 2004, listing Eaton, Feldheim and Gugliotti as inventors. Under university policy, the inventors would be entitled to 40 percent of any resulting royalties from licenses purchased by private companies.

The patent was pending throughout the internal controversy in the chemistry department, which erupted in 2006. After Eaton and Feldheim left for the University of Colorado, NCSU dropped the pending patent application in 2007.

“The statement implies that Eaton and I had a commercial interest in the research, which is false,” Feldheim wrote.

The 2004 Science article claimed that the scientists used RNA to manufacture hexagonal crystals of palladium, a rare and valuable metal. One notebook contained images of the hexagonal crystals degrading at room temperature, which Franzen cited as a “smoking gun,” proof that the particles were not palladium crystals. The metal has a melting point of 2,831 degrees and cannot degrade at room temperature.

Feldheim disagreed, saying the N&O ignored research that electron microscopes can melt or degrade metal nanoparticles at lower temperatures than large pieces of the same metal. Upon the N&O’s request, Feldheim supplied three journal articles to support his claim.

Jim Martin is a NCSU chemistry professor and expert in diffraction, the analysis of how electron beams or other waves interact with particles. When properly done, diffraction images can provide fingerprints of the smallest of particles. Martin reviewed the three articles at the N&O’s request. One article concerned iron oxide, which had no relation to the palladium article, he said.

The two articles that discuss palladium particles indicate that the material is a hybrid of palladium and organic components such as carbon or oxygen, not pure palladium crystals, as the Science article claimed.

“These articles do not support Feldheim’s case,” Martin said.

More important, there is no similarity between the diffraction image of the hexagonal particles, reported in the Science paper and Gugliotti’s thesis, to the diffraction pattern characteristic of metallic palladium. That, Martin said, provides conclusive evidence that the decomposing hexagonal particles in Gugliotti’s notebook are not palladium.

Was it reproduced?

Feldheim criticized the newspaper for not including all information favorable to Eaton and himself. For example, the newspaper article discussed discrepancies with the RNA solution used to create the particles. The Science article described it as water and RNA, while a subsequent article said it contained 5 percent solvent.

Franzen and the scientists in his lab wrote that the RNA was not necessary to create the particles. Gugliotti’s notebooks showed that the solution typically contained up to 50 percent solvent, which was not disclosed in the journal articles.

Feldheim said that the N&O failed to point out that a member of the NCSU investigative committee “was able to successfully, albeit informally reproduce” the 5 percent solution used in the Feldheim and Eaton papers.

That committee member was Thom LaBean, then at Duke University but now at NCSU. LaBean said in an email that he would not discuss the investigation until given approval to do so. But he did say he never published any results from the experiments reproducing the solution.

“We did not produce significant, reproducible data using the system,” LaBean wrote.

‘He lied to me’

Feldheim alleged that the N&O was wrong to write that NCSU urged the authors to correct their errors in the Science article. The NCSU investigative committee’s report did not use the word “correct,” Feldheim wrote.

The N&O article relied on three letters requesting corrections that Terri Lomax, NCSU vice chancellor for research, wrote to the scientists and to science journals.

“The Science paper remains wrong and is regularly cited by other scientists,” Lomax wrote to Feldheim and Eaton in August 2008. “You should correct the scientific record accordingly.”

Feldheim criticized Lomax for dismissing the conclusion of the internal NCSU investigation. “Academic freedom and due process do not appear to be in Lomax’s vocabulary,” Feldheim wrote.

Lomax replied that she wrote all three letters at the request of the investigative committee.

The Science article and Franzen’s quest to prove it wrong led to harsh relationships in the chemistry department. The N&O, for example, quoting a letter Franzen wrote to Feldheim and Eaton, reported that Franzen resigned from the $1 million Keck Foundation grant.

Feldheim said Franzen never resigned and kept the Keck funds.

“He lied to me about resigning,” Feldheim said. “This was an intentional and deceitful act.”

Franzen said that his department chairman said he would not recognize Franzen’s letter of resignation. If Franzen resigned, Morteza Khaledi, who was the chemistry department chairman at the time, said NCSU would lose control over the project and $400,000 worth of equipment purchased with the Keck grant.

Khaledi confirmed Franzen’s account.

“Dr. Franzen intended to resign from the Keck grant, but I advised him not to because the grant was made to NCSU (and could not be moved to Colorado) and Franzen was the only remaining investigator,” Khaledi said in an email.

Feldheim’s emails laid bare the hostility between the former colleagues with a long history of collaboration and friendship. Feldheim and Franzen joined NCSU at the same time, published papers together, wrote grants together, and are listed together as inventors on patents.

Those days are long gone. In his letter, Feldheim noted that the N&O reported that Franzen speaks 10 languages and was a Peace Corps volunteer.

“... If space allows, you might also mention that I speak two languages reasonably well and travel to Central America each year with a group of students to work on medical and public health projects,” he wrote.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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