Update: the story continues to develop. The scientist mentioned below, Jingwu Zang has been dismissed from GSK, and others are under investigation. The paper itself is in the process of being retracted. More here.
This is quite bad. Reports have been circulating that GlaxoSmithKline is investigating the scientists (and the results) behind this 2010 paper in Nature Medicine.
That first link from Pharmalot mentions this thread at the Chinese mitbbs.com site, and similar stuff has been showing up elsewhere. The online speculation is about Jingwu Zang (sometimes appearing as Zhang, the more common transliteration of the name), who was the lead author on the paper. Various postings (from the same person?) claim that Zang has been let go from GSK, and the Biocentury link in the first paragraph says that mail to his corresponding address bounces back.
The paper is (was?) on IL-7's role in autoimmune disease, a perfectly good topic for a drug company research group to be investigating, of course. But now we're going to have to watch to see if any retraction comes out of this - GSK doesn't have to comment on their hiring (and firing) decisions, but I hope that they wouldn't let a fraudulent Nature Medicine paper stand. That's the really disturbing thing about this situation; I'll see if I can explain what I mean.
A critic from outside the drug industry might say "So what? You people publish shady junk all the time? What's another truth-stretching paper, more or less?" Now, I resent implications like that, but at the same time, there have indeed been instances of nasty publication behavior (ghostwriting, etc.), which I deplore. But those things have been driving by the desire to increase sales of approved drugs. They come from overzealous marketing departments clawing for share, trying to get physicians to write for the company's drug over the other choices.
But the further back you go from the elbow-throwing front lines of the market, the less of that stuff you should see. The paper under scrutiny is early-stage research; it could have come from any good lab (academic or industrial) studying T-cell behavior, multiple sclerosis, or autoimmune mechanisms. Frankly, most of the shady stuff (and retractions) in this kind of work come from academia: the viciously competitive front lines of their market are publications in prestigious journals (like Nature Medicine), which directly bear on funding and tenure decisions. Drug companies have an incentive to stretch the truth about how wonderful their current drug is, not about what their scientists have discovered about biochemistry and cell biology. That doesn't bring in any money.
But what a publication like that does bring in, perhaps, is internal prestige. If you're trying to show what a big deal your particular branch of the company is, and what high-quality work they do, this would be one good way to do it. Keep in mind, publications like this are not the primary goal of people in the drug business; it's not like academia. The job of a drug company research group is to increase the number of drugs the company finds, and publishing in a good journal really doesn't have much to do with that. This publication, though, is a way of telling everyone else - other drug companies, other academic and industrial scientists, other departments and higher-ups at GSK, who may or may not know much about immunology per se, that GSK's Shanghai labs do good enough work to get it into Nature Medicine.
And while we're talking about this, let's talk about another widely-held belief about pharma research branches in China. There have, of course, been a number of these opened over the last five or ten years. And there are a lot of good scientists in China, and there are a lot of research topics that are relevant to the needs of a big drug company, so why not? But it's also widely assumed - although this is certainly not written down anywhere - that the Chinese government very much encourages big foreign companies to start such operations in China itself. If you lend your company's internationally known name to an operation in Shanghai (or wherever), if you invest in getting that site going, if you hire a big group of Chinese nationals to work there and manage things. . .well, the Chinese authorities are just going to like you more. Aren't they? And while being liked by the authorities is never a bad thing in any country in the world, particularly in a heavily regulated industry like pharmaceuticals, it is a particularly good thing in some of them.
This is an unfortunate situation. I believe very strongly in a government of laws, not of men - appropriately enough for where I work, that phrase was written by John Adams into the Constitution of Massachusetts. It's an ideal very difficult to realize, particularly since both Massachusetts and the rest of the world are stocked with human beings, but ideals are supposed to be difficult to realize. I understand that personal connections matter all over the world, and that this is by no means always a bad thing. But the bigger and broader the issues, the more important should be the rule of law.
The particular problem of multinational Chinese research institutes, which this current scandal can only worsen, is that too many people can assume that they've been built mainly to satisfy the Chinese government. They suffer, in other words, from the curse of affirmative action (and other such preference programs): the ever-present suspicion that once merit and ability are made secondary, that all bets are off. (This online debate at The Economist does a good job of airing out such concerns). In other words, the government of China could well end up accomplishing the exact reverse of what it's presumably trying to do: instead of elevating Chinese research (and researchers), it could be damaging the reputations of both.