Here’s a long article from the Raleigh News and Observer (part one and part two) on the Eaton/Feldheim/Franzen dispute in nanoparticles, which some readers may already be familiar with (I haven’t covered it on the blog myself). The articles are clearly driven by Franzen’s continued belief that research fraud has been committed, and the paper makes the most of it.
The original 2004 publication in Science claimed that RNA solutions could influence the crystal form of palladium nanoparticles, which opened up the possibility of applying the tools of molecular biology to catalysts and other inorganic chemistry applications. Two more papers in JACS extended this to platinum and looked at in vitro evolutionary experiments. But even by 2005, Franzen’s lab (who had been asked to join the collaboration between Eaton and Feldheim, who were now at Colorado and a startup company) was generating disturbing data: the original hexagonal crystals (a very strange and interesting form for palladium) weren’t pure palladium at all – on an elemental basis, they were mostly carbon. (Later work showed that they were unstable crystals of (roughly) Pd(dba)3, with solvated THF. And they were produced just as well in the negative control experiments, with no RNA added at all.
N. C. State investigated the matter, and the committee agreed that the results were spurious. But they found Feldheim guilty of sloppy work, rather than fraud, saying he should have checked things out more thoroughly. Franzen continued to feel as if justice hadn’t been done, though:
In fall 2009, he spent $1,334 of his own money to hire Mike Tadych, a Raleigh lawyer who specializes in public records law and who has represented The News & Observer. In 2010, the university relented and allowed Franzen into the room where the investigation records were locked away.
Franzen found the lab notebooks, which track experiments and results. As he turned the pages, he recognized that Gugliotti kept a thorough and well-organized record.
“I found an open-and-shut case of research fraud,” Franzen said.
The aqueous solution mentioned in the Science article? The experiments routinely used 50 percent solvent. The experiments only produced the hexagonal crystals when there was a high level of solvent, typically 50 percent or more. It was the solvent creating the hexagonal crystals, not the RNA.
On Page 43 of notebook 3, Franzen found what he called a “smoking gun.”
(Graduate student Lina) Gugliotti had pasted four images of hexagonal crystals, ragged around the edges. The particles were degrading at room temperature. The same degradation was present in other samples, she noted.
The Science paper claimed the RNA-templated crystals were formed in aqueous solution with 5% THF and were stable. NC State apparently offered to revoke Gugliotti’s doctorate (and another from the group), but the article says that the chemistry faculty objected, saying that the professors involved should be penalized, not the students. The university isn’t commenting, saying that an investigation by the NSF is still ongoing, but Franzen points out that it’s been going on for five years now, a delay that has probably set a record. He’s published several papers characterizing the palladium “nanocrystals”, though, including this recent one with one of Eaton and Feldheim’s former collaborators and co-authors. And there the matter stands.
It’s interesting that Franzen pursued this all the way to the newspaper (known when I Iived in North Carolina by its traditional nickname of the Nuisance and Disturber). He’s clearly upset at having joined what looked like an important and fruitful avenue of research, only to find out – rather quickly – that it was based on sloppy, poorly-characterized results. And I think what really has him furious is that the originators of the idea (Feldheim and Eaton) have tried, all these years, to carry on as if nothing was wrong.
I think, though, that Franzen is having his revenge whether he realizes it or not. It’s coming up on ten years now since the original RNA nanocrystal paper. If this work were going to lead somewhere, you’d think that it would have led somewhere by now. But it doesn’t seem to be. The whole point of the molecular-biology-meets-materials-science aspect of this idea was that it would allow a wide variety of new materials to be made quickly, and from the looks of things, that just hasn’t happened. I’ll bet that if you went back and looked up the 2005 grant application for the Keck foundation that Eaton, Feldheim (and at the time, Franzen) wrote up, it would read like an alternate-history science fiction story by now.