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  • Journal retracts Brazilian research on killer parasite

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[SAO PAULO] Scientists have reacted with shock to news that a leading journal has retracted a paper by Brazilian researchers without, they say, offering an adequate explanation.

In July 2004, the journal Cell published research by Antonio Teixeira of the University of Brasilia and colleagues on Chagas disease, a parasitic disease affecting millions of people in Latin America.

According to the study, the parasite's DNA can combine with that of people it infects (see Chagas disease parasite transfers its DNA to people).

This caused great interest among scientists who thought it might explain why one-third of people infected with the parasite go on to develop chronic symptoms that can last for years.

But on 23 September, Cell retracted the paper, stating that unnamed independent experts had said it lacked "strong evidence for the central hypothesis".

The journal's statement added that the researchers "stand by the original data and do not endorse the retraction".

Norma Andrews, a Yale University professor who also studies Chagas disease has written to the editor of Cell criticising the "very unusual" action.

"We all assume that the paper was reviewed, and that the Cell editors decided, with referees' comments in hand that the evidence and interpretation were sufficiently strong for publication," wrote Andrews.

"Such unilateral reversal of that decision, without presenting new experimental data, is truly shocking."

Steve Hajduk from the US-based Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, one of the three original reviewers of the paper, told Teixeira that he, too, was preparing a letter of complaint to Cell.

"I believe Cell Press should provide you and the scientific community a more complete explanation of the reasons for the retraction," Hajduk told Teixeira by email on 27 September.

Teixeira told SciDev.Net that if prominent US or European researchers had published a similar study it would never have been retracted in such a rushed manner, especially without any contradictory data being presented.

Marcelo Nóbrega, a Brazilian geneticist at the University of Chicago, United States, agrees, calling the retraction statement "unbelievable — arrogant, evasive and unilateral".

Nóbrega, who has never worked with Teixeira, told SciDev.Net that even if Teixeira's team incorrectly identified exactly where in the host's genetic material the parasitic DNA integrates — as suggested in Cell's retraction — this does not mean that integration does not occur.

Cell editor Emilie Marcus did not reply to an interview request.

Heidi Hardman, press officer for Cell Press, replied in a single line: "The situation is being reviewed and we will likely prepare a statement at a later date."

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