Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Too good to be true science - creating mistrust or assurance?

While science is our greatest sense of hope, it can also be a source of immense frustration. Today I'm reminded that the products of science are influenced by imperfect people, and at least for me, feeling "frustrated" understates things a bit.
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What happens when scientists misbehave? And what happens when their work makes it past the rigorous peer-review process which is designed to ensure integrity of scientific findings? And what happens when those findings are published in top-tier journals, such as Nature? (yes - there are tiers of journal in the scientific realm. Publishing in Nature is like getting published in the New York Times vs. Small City Daily Herald.) 

This past January, two scientific papers (here and here) were published in Nature, describing a seemingly simple way to convert differentiated bodily cells (such as spleen cells) into pluripotent stem cells - precursor cells with the potential to become virtually any type of bodily cell.  All you needed to do was stress differentiated cells out by dipping them in an acid bath and, bam! - pluripotent stem cells. It was a surprisingly simple method set to revolutionize medicine - and all the news was abuzz with these findings.

The significance if the findings are true.

If you can induce cells from a person's own body to become a stem cell, in theory, with the correct cues, you could create entirely new, genetically identical cells/tissues/organs.Thus, it could be used as a transplant without the risk of rejection and the corresponding life-long immunosuppressive drugs. And, yes, it could lead to a possible cure for allergic disorders (see earlier post where bone marrow transplant may have cured food allergy).

Too good to be true? 
(Read here and here for the sordid details building in the months following publication).

Today, Nature officially retracted the papers. A retraction means the work is flawed (probably outright fraudulent in this case). To scientists, retraction is like the study was never published in the first place, and thus will not be cited as scientific evidence in the future. That being said, it would have been much better if it had never been published in the first place.

The potential fallout.

Mistrust of scientific findings by the general public. Career suicide to the leading scientist on the study. Scientific journals re-evaluating their review process.

Re-framing the fallout - greater assurance in science.

While mistrust of scientific findings is a logical fallout, my hope is that rather than mistrust, this story creates greater assurance in the scientific process. While peer-review is designed to prevent this type of thing from getting published, this story highlights peer-review's imperfection. The good news is that scientific scrutiny clearly extends beyond peer-review. A tenet of science is reproducibility by independent research groups. Despite attempts, the findings have not been reproduced and obvious flaws and inconsistencies were found after reviewing the scientific data by the primary institute where the research was done.

As for scientists, fraud is career suicide - just ask Andrew Wakefield. In the business of science, trust and integrity is everything. This fact in and of itself, tends to keep scientists honest. That being said, scientists are people too, which means inevitably the less desirable traits of humanity periodically show up - greed, deception, etc. Whatever the motivation, the nature of science ensures that the truth eventually comes out, in spite of flawed humanity.

Scientific journals are re-evaluating their oversight. Currently, Nature is evaluating whether more can be done to ensure integrity of published findings. They summarize by saying, "We — research funders, research practitioners, institutions and journals — need to put quality assurance and laboratory professionalism ever higher on our agendas, to ensure that the money entrusted by governments is not squandered, and that citizens’ trust in science is not betrayed."

My concerns.

Reports of scientific findings linger on the internet, even if they are later found to be erroneous. Because most non-scientists never read the primary, peer-reviewed journal article, it is possible to look at reports of science many months or years after a study, and never realize that the actual science was retracted!

My advice.

If science is reported, look for a link to the original study. If the article does not give a link, find another source which does link the the original study to corroborate. Always click on the link for the original study - read the title/abstract. Does the article faithfully report the findings? Does it link to the correct paper? Also, be sure to look for the title leading with retracted, an additional link with the word retraction (as seen in PubMed database), or a watermark that shows retraction. Doing this extra step will help you avoid getting duped!

An exercise to try -
1. Click the following report about GMO's and cancer in rats

2. Can you find the link to the original peer-reviewed article in #1?

The link to abstract provided in the article is this -

3. Do you think that this is the peer-reviewed article that #1 reports?
Answer = nope!
This is the study reported on -

Note: I used a high profile retraction of a study published in 2012. Conclusion from the journal: the study was found inconclusive - the data didn't support the claims made by the authors.

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