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Scientific fraud allegations: Wakefield is not unique

Posted Jan 08 2011 2:07pm

Most readers have likely already heard about the BMJ pieces calling out Andrew Wakefield’s research as fraudulent. Mr. Wakefield has tried to deflect these criticisms by claiming that Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who initially broke the Wakefield story years ago and who wrote the main article for the BMJ, is part of a consipiracy funded by pharmaceutical interests with the goal of discrediting Andrew Wakefield and his work. Besides these wild claims, Mr. Wakefield and his supporters have offered the defense that it would be impossible for one man to perpetrate scientific fraud of this sort.

Unfortunately, scientific fraud does happen. A quick google search of scientific fraud gathers many hits. One prominent hit is this piece by Politics Daily, U.S. Scientists Top Research-Fraud List—How Concerned Should We Be?

You won’t be surprised to hear that the blog Retraction Watch has a goal of “tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process” and has reported on the recent BMJ article on Andrew Wakefield .

Most retractions are far more mundane than Mr. Wakefield’s. Consider this article in Retraction Watch: Authors of Journal of Immunology paper retract it after realizing they had ordered the wrong mice .

Some retractions are as complex, if not as damaging, as Mr. Wakefield’s paper. Consider the case of Jan Hendrik Schön , a researcher for the prestigious Bell Labs in the United States. Schön reported amazing breakthroughs on single-molecule semiconductors. Others were unable to replicate his results and, as time went on, people started to notice anomalies in his papers—like identical data being reported for very different experimental conditions, in multiple papers. When investigated he was unable to produce the data to support his work.

In the end, at least 21 of his papers were retracted. These were in highly respectable journals: Science, Nature and Physical Review B. His university went so far as to revoke his Ph.D..

Research fraud happens. Rarely, but it happens. Even with co-authors and peer review.

Another part of the defense Mr. Wakefield and his supporters offer is an attempt to focus all attention on the retracted paper in The Lancet. They state that the Lancet Paper did claim proof of a link between MMR vaccination and autism. Mr. Wakefield’s research improprieties did not start nor end with the 1998 Lancet paper. Even though the Lancet study did not prove a link between MMR and autism (even if it were not a case of research fraud), Mr. Wakefield made public statements about his beliefs that the MMR vaccine was linked to his new (and still unproven) “syndrome” of autism and gastrointestinal disease.

The BMJ has called for a review of more of Mr. Wakefield’s papers. They are quite right to make this call. Many of Mr. Wakefield’s studies are likely contaminated by biased case selection, if nothing else.

One paper that absolutely deserves review is the paper by Uhlman, Wakefield and others which claimed to find evidence of measles virus RNA in the intestinal tissues of autistic children:


Potential viral pathogenic mechanism for new variant inflammatory bowel disease.

Uhlmann V, Martin CM, Sheils O, Pilkington L, Silva I, Killalea A, Murch SB, Walker-Smith J, Thomson M, Wakefield AJ, O’Leary JJ.

Department of Pathology, Coombe Women’s Hospital, Dublin 8, Ireland.

Abstract

AIMS: A new form of inflammatory bowel disease (ileocolonic lymphonodular hyperplasia) has been described in a cohort of children with developmental disorder. This study investigates the presence of persistent measles virus in the intestinal tissue of these patients (new variant inflammatory bowel disease) and a series of controls by molecular analysis.

METHODS: Formalin fixed, paraffin wax embedded and fresh frozen biopsies from the terminal ileum were examined from affected children and histological normal controls. The measles virus Fusion (F) and Haemagglutinin (H) genes were detected by TaqMan reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and the Nucleocapsid (N) gene by RT in situ PCR. Localisation of the mRNA signal was performed using a specific follicular dendritic cell antibody.

RESULTS: Seventy five of 91 patients with a histologically confirmed diagnosis of ileal lymphonodular hyperplasia and enterocolitis were positive for measles virus in their intestinal tissue compared with five of 70 control patients. Measles virus was identified within the follicular dendritic cells and some lymphocytes in foci of reactive follicular hyperplasia. The copy number of measles virus ranged from one to 300,00 copies/ng total RNA.

CONCLUSIONS: The data confirm an association between the presence of measles virus and gut pathology in children with developmental disorder.

Testimony presented at the Omnibus Autism Proceeding by PCR expert Stephen Bustin demonstrated clearly that the PCR experiments in this study were performed in such a way as to make accurate analysis impossible. A crucial step was missing in the process.

Further, and more damning, was the testimony of Dr. Chadwick, a former researcher with Andrew Wakefield at the Royal Free Hospital. Dr. Chadwick discussed how PCR results from his laboratory showed no presence of measles virus—in many of the same children used in Mr. Wakefield’s reported research. Yes, Mr. Wakefield knowingly ignored data, from his own research group, which went against his conclusion.

Clearly this paper should be subjected to review and, I believe, should be retracted.

In terms of perpetrating research fraud, Mr. Wakefield is not unique. There are other examples of gross fraud. However, there is a major difference between the Jan Schon’s of the world who waste a lot of other researchers time and money and the Andrew Wakefield’s of the world who put public health at risk, and cause great harm to autistics and their families. While it is tiring to hear the Andrew Wakefield saga come to the fore again and again, the story is not over. His misconduct neither started with nor ended with the Lancet paper. The retractions will not end there either.

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