The entire theory (and research thereon) that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by “amyloid beta” protein plaques, which has been around since a widely publicized and seminal 2006 paper, now teeters on the brink of implosion, or at least deep and major reworking. A six-month Science magazine-supported investigation reveals “doctored” (pun not intended, but fits) medical imaging of the sufferers’ brains. Those images appeared inside that first paper, other papers by the same authors, and on down through more papers by others that used the original work and data as a foundation.
Many tens of millions of dollars of research, across 16 years of elapsed time, is at risk, thanks to irreproducibility and perhaps outright tampering. That risk includes waste of a lot of taxpayer funding. If these images contain bogus alterations (in effect, unethically altering data to fit hypotheses), as independent analysis hired by Science magazine have affirmed, this could become the greatest scientific scandal of our time, and that’s saying something.
Science (the profession), and medical science in particular, are having a tough time reputationally right now — most of it not deserved, but some of it well-earned, unfortunately. Science (the profession) doesn’t need any more body blows to credibility. The great majority of scientists are honest and ethical. I know many in meteorology and other geosciences, and even a few in medicine. Scientists absolutely should be held to utmost high ethical standards. Still, as with any profession, human nature can infest science with bad actors too — some of whom are smart enough to get away with it, at least for awhile.
Yes, science is self-correcting, but the time for that with this topic was *before* publication, during peer review — or at the very latest, independent reproduction shortly after with retractions…but not 16 years and countless research time and money later. Better late than never in exposing potential misconduct, of course — but this has a uniquely foul stench due to the broad impact. It’s not some obscure work with an audience of ten, investigating the electrical conductivity of a piece of tree bark in Tasmania. Instead this is a horrid disease that impacts millions of people, now and future, with enormous social and economic cost, and most of us know someone(s) affected.
As a (non-medical) scientist and photographer, who is also a journal editor, I care about experimental and data reproducibility, photographic & science ethics, as well as waste of taxpayers’ research funding. I’ve also lost friends and colleagues to Alzheimer’s disease. That all makes this revelation rather infuriating.
Please read the full, long-form article (linked here again) for the full story. Here is an excerpt:
If Schrag’s doubts are correct, Lesné’s findings were an elaborate mirage.
Schrag, who had not publicly revealed his role as a whistleblower until this article, avoids the word “fraud” in his critiques of Lesné’s work and the Cassava-related studies and does not claim to have proved misconduct. That would require access to original, complete, unpublished images and in some cases raw numerical data. “I focus on what we can see in the published images, and describe them as red flags, not final conclusions,” he says. “The data should speak for itself.”
A 6-month investigation by Science provided strong support for Schrag’s suspicions and raised questions about Lesné’s research. A leading independent image analyst and several top Alzheimer’s researchers—including George Perry of the University of Texas, San Antonio, and John Forsayeth of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)—reviewed most of Schrag’s findings at Science’s request. They concurred with his overall conclusions, which cast doubt on hundreds of images, including more than 70 in Lesné’s papers. Some look like “shockingly blatant” examples of image tampering, says Donna Wilcock, an Alzheimer’s expert at the University of Kentucky.
The authors “appeared to have composed figures by piecing together parts of photos from different experiments,” says Elisabeth Bik, a molecular biologist and well-known forensic image consultant. “The obtained experimental results might not have been the desired results, and that data might have been changed to … better fit a hypothesis.”