13 January 2012

Fraudulent Scientists

First appeared in Time: Heartland
Dipak Das

In January 2012, University of Connecticut officials announced that Das, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, had fabricated his research 145 times in papers published in 11 scientific journals. Das studied the effects of a compound in red wine, resveratrol, on the heart.

The university launched an investigation of Das’ work in 2008 after an anonymous tip raised questions about  images in his papers, which were turned out to be manipulated.  In its 60,000 page report, the investigators say some of the images were created at a time when there wasn’t anyone in the lab with the proper expertise to generate them, and that Das divided the work on experiments so that even lead authors of papers weren’t fully involved in preparing data and figures. Das testified to the investigators that he had no knowledge of the manipulations, a claim that the panel says “lacks credibility.” The report was filed with the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which is conducting its own investigation into the fraud. As for Das, a university spokesperson said he “remains employed by the UConn Health Center pending dismissal proceedings per university bylaws.”

Andrew Wakefield

Do vaccines cause autism? Medical experts say no, but we can thank Wakefield for introducing the doubt that won’t die in many parents’ minds. In 1998, the  gastroenterologist at Royal Free Hospital in London published a study describing a connection between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, after he found evidence of these viruses, presumably from the shot, in the guts of a dozen autistic children, eight of whom developed autism-like symptoms days after receiving their vaccination.

Other scientists could not replicate Wakefield’s findings, nor verify a link between the vaccine and autism. In 2010, the journal that published his paper retracted it, and its editors noted that “it was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false.” Later that year, the General Medical Council in the U.K. revoked Wakefield’s medical license, citing ethical concerns over how he recruited the patients in the study as well as his failure to disclose that he was a paid consultant to attorneys representing parents who believed their children had been harmed by vaccines.

The final shoe dropped a year later, when another prestigious medical journal concluded that his research was also fraudulent, after evidence that some of the timelines of the children’s symptoms were misrepresented.

Wakefield maintains his innocence, and penned a book defending his work and his continued belief in a connection between vaccines and autism. Infectious disease experts and pediatricians, meanwhile, routinely confront conflicted parents who question the safety of vaccines, despite immunization’s long-standing record of successfully controlling childhood diseases with relatively few side effects.

Woo Suk Hwang

It’s not often that scientists achieve rock star status, but that’s what Hwang enjoyed when, seemingly out of nowhere, the Seoul National University professor of veterinary medicine catapulted South Korea to the top of the science hierarchy with his 2004 success in cloning human cells and making human embryonic stem cells.

Or at least that’s what he and everyone else in the world thought he had done. It was the first time anyone had taken a human cell, inserted it into a donor egg, and coaxed it to grow, in theory into a clone of the original cell. He followed that stunning announcement a year later with another first — using the same process to generate embryonic stem cells from patients with spinal cord injury and diabetes, opening the possibility that patients might benefit from stem cell therapies to cure these and other diseases.

That same year, however, anonymous tips raised questions about images depicting the stem cell lines in one of the papers, and a university and government investigation revealed that the stem cells did not come from the cells as Hwang claimed, but from IVF embryos. Hwang said was not aware of the fraud, which he maintained was perpetrated by members of his lab, but was stripped of his position at the university and banned from conducting stem cell research in Korea. He is reportedly seeking investors to fund his research outside of the country.

Dr. Roger Poisson

Sometimes fraud can be driven by good, but misguided intentions. Poisson, a professor of surgery at the University of Montreal, was a member of the prestigious National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP), a joint U.S. and Canadian research effort that since 1958 has conducted studies on some of the most effective treatments for breast cancer. In 1994, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity found that for nearly a decade, Poisson had enrolled patients who were not eligible for trials and then falsified or fabricated their medical records to cover up their ineligibility, in an effort to involve as many women as possible in the studies. Investigators found two sets of patient books in Poisson’s lab, one marked ‘true’ and another labelled ‘false.’ The women were part of trials that established that lumpectomy plus radiation was as effective as mastectomy in lowering risk of recurrent breast cancer.

Other studies have since confirmed the benefits of lumpectomy combined with radiation, but the misrepresentation caused many who underwent the procedure to question whether they had made the right decision. “People who are not on the front line of the battle have no idea how frustrating it can be to prepare an eligible patient for a trial, with several pep talks and a great deal of discussion, explanation for the informed consent and to convince the patient to participate and — at the last moment — to realize the patient [is ineligible],” he wrote to the investigators in his defense. Poisson was banned from receiving U.S. government research funding for eight years.

The “Baltimore Case”

The difference between making a mistake and committing fraud is one of intention, and it’s often a fine and obscure line.

That became clear in 1989, when Congress opened hearings into alleged misconduct by Thereza Imanishi-Kari, an assistant in the lab of Nobel laureate David Baltimore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1985, Baltimore and Imanisi-Kari had published a paper describing their success in injecting a mouse with a gene that altered its immune system so the animal could produce antibodies against a given bacteria or virus. The findings raised the possibility that the human immune system could be modified in the same way, enhancing our ability to ward off infections.

A postdoctoral fellow working in the lab failed to reproduce the results, however, and those concerns eventually led to the Congressional hearings in which Baltimore staunchly defended the work. Imanishi-Kari was found guilty of scientific fraud and Baltimore’s reputation was tarnished by association, leading him to resign from his new position as president of Rockefeller University.

In 1996, however, an appeals board of the National Institutes of Health re-analyzed the case and determined that the paper did not contain fraudulent data, but errors that both co-authors later acknowledged. Imanishi-Kari was exonerated and Baltimore went on to helm California Institute of Technology.

Charles Dawson

The passion of belief, even in scientific discovery, can be enough to perpetuate a hoax across decades, as the case of “Piltdown man” shows. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist, claimed to have been presented with pieces of a skull dug up by a laborer in the English village of Piltdown. Along with a respected member of the Natural History Museum, Dawson presented his fossil as a remnant of man’s earliest ancestor. Other funny-looking fragments from the same region were unearthed in following years, all eagerly labelled as fossils of an early man.

It wasn’t until 1953, when more sophisticated dating techniques became available, that the fossils were determined to be a hoax, actually made from what appeared to be an orangutan’s jaw. It’s not clear whether Dawson was the original mastermind behind the fraud, or whether he was the front for others who had reason to stick it to the British scientific establishment (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, was one possible candidate), but regardless who the culprit was, he was certainly the one who enjoyed the last laugh.

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