Researchers Behaving Badly: Known Frauds Are "the Tip of the Iceberg"
Last week, the whistleblowers in the Paolo Macchiarini affair at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet went on the record here to detail the retaliation they suffered for trying to expose a star surgeon's appalling research misconduct.
Scientific fraud of the type committed by Macchiarini is rare, but studies suggest that it's on the rise.
The whistleblowers had discovered that in six published papers, Macchiarini falsified data, lied about the condition of patients and circumvented ethical approvals. As a result, multiple patients suffered and died. But Karolinska turned a blind eye for years.
Scientific fraud of the type committed by Macchiarini is rare, but studies suggest that it's on the rise. Just this week, for example, Retraction Watch and STAT together broke the news that a Harvard Medical School cardiologist and stem cell researcher, Piero Anversa, falsified data in a whopping 31 papers, which now have to be retracted. Anversa had claimed that he could regenerate heart muscle by injecting bone marrow cells into damaged hearts, a result that no one has been able to duplicate.
A 2009 study published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) found that about two percent of scientists admitted to committing fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in their work. That's a small number, but up to one third of scientists admit to committing "questionable research practices" that fall into a gray area between rigorous accuracy and outright fraud.
These dubious practices may include misrepresentations, research bias, and inaccurate interpretations of data. One common questionable research practice entails formulating a hypothesis after the research is done in order to claim a successful premise. Another highly questionable practice that can shape research is ghost-authoring by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and other for-profit fields. Still another is gifting co-authorship to unqualified but powerful individuals who can advance one's career. Such practices can unfairly bolster a scientist's reputation and increase the likelihood of getting the work published.
The above percentages represent what scientists admit to doing themselves; when they evaluate the practices of their colleagues, the numbers jump dramatically. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, researchers estimated that 14 percent of other scientists commit serious misconduct, while up to 72 percent engage in questionable practices. While these are only estimates, the problem is clearly not one of just a few bad apples.
In the PLOS study, Daniele Fanelli says that increasing evidence suggests the known frauds are "just the 'tip of the iceberg,' and that many cases are never discovered" because fraud is extremely hard to detect.
Essentially everyone wants to be associated with big breakthroughs, and they may overlook scientifically shaky foundations when a major advance is claimed.
In addition, it's likely that most cases of scientific misconduct go unreported because of the high price of whistleblowing. Those in the Macchiarini case showed extraordinary persistence in their multi-year campaign to stop his deadly trachea implants, while suffering serious damage to their careers. Such heroic efforts to unmask fraud are probably rare.
To make matters worse, there are numerous players in the scientific world who may be complicit in either committing misconduct or covering it up. These include not only primary researchers but co-authors, institutional executives, journal editors, and industry leaders. Essentially everyone wants to be associated with big breakthroughs, and they may overlook scientifically shaky foundations when a major advance is claimed.
Another part of the problem is that it's rare for students in science and medicine to receive an education in ethics. And studies have shown that older, more experienced and possibly jaded researchers are more likely to fudge results than their younger, more idealistic colleagues.
So, given the steep price that individuals and institutions pay for scientific misconduct, what compels them to go down that road in the first place? According to the JRMS study, individuals face intense pressures to publish and to attract grant money in order to secure teaching positions at universities. Once they have acquired positions, the pressure is on to keep the grants and publishing credits coming in order to obtain tenure, be appointed to positions on boards, and recruit flocks of graduate students to assist in research. And not to be underestimated is the human ego.
Paolo Macchiarini is an especially vivid example of a scientist seeking not only fortune, but fame. He liberally (and falsely) claimed powerful politicians and celebrities, even the Pope, as patients or admirers. He may be an extreme example, but we live in an age of celebrity scientists who bring huge amounts of grant money and high prestige to the institutions that employ them.
The media plays a significant role in both glorifying stars and unmasking frauds. In the Macchiarini scandal, the media first lifted him up, as in NBC's laudatory documentary, "A Leap of Faith," which painted him as a kind of miracle-worker, and then brought him down, as in the January 2016 documentary, "The Experiments," which chronicled the agonizing death of one of his patients.
Institutions can also play a crucial role in scientific fraud by putting more emphasis on the number and frequency of papers published than on their quality. The whole course of a scientist's career is profoundly affected by something called the h-index. This is a number based on both the frequency of papers published and how many times the papers are cited by other researchers. Raising one's ranking on the h-index becomes an overriding goal, sometimes eclipsing the kind of patient, time-consuming research that leads to true breakthroughs based on reliable results.
Universities also create a high-pressured environment that encourages scientists to cut corners. They, too, place a heavy emphasis on attracting large monetary grants and accruing fame and prestige. This can lead them, just as it led Karolinska, to protect a star scientist's sloppy or questionable research. According to Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, who is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, "Karolinska defended its investment in an individual as opposed to the long-term health of the institution. People were dying, and they should have outsourced the investigation from the very beginning."
Having institutions investigate their own practices is a conflict of interest from the get-go, says Rosenberg.
Scientists, universities, and research institutions are also not immune to fads. "Hot" subjects attract grant money and confer prestige, incentivizing scientists to shift their research priorities in a direction that garners more grants. This can mean neglecting the scientist's true area of expertise and interests in favor of a subject that's more likely to attract grant money. In Macchiarini's case, he was allegedly at the forefront of the currently sexy field of regenerative medicine -- a field in which Karolinska was making a huge investment.
The relative scarcity of resources intensifies the already significant pressure on scientists. They may want to publish results rapidly, since they face many competitors for limited grant money, academic positions, students, and influence. The scarcity means that a great many researchers will fail while only a few succeed. Once again, the temptation may be to rush research and to show it in the most positive light possible, even if it means fudging or exaggerating results.
Though the pressures facing scientists are very real, the problem of misconduct is not inevitable.
Intense competition can have a perverse effect on researchers, according to a 2007 study in the journal Science of Engineering and Ethics. Not only does it place undue pressure on scientists to succeed, it frequently leads to the withholding of information from colleagues, which undermines a system in which new discoveries build on the previous work of others. Researchers may feel compelled to withhold their results because of the pressure to be the first to publish. The study's authors propose that more investment in basic research from governments could alleviate some of these competitive pressures.
Scientific journals, although they play a part in publishing flawed science, can't be expected to investigate cases of suspected fraud, says the German science blogger Leonid Schneider. Schneider's writings helped to expose the Macchiarini affair.
"They just basically wait for someone to retract problematic papers," he says.
He also notes that, while American scientists can go to the Office of Research Integrity to report misconduct, whistleblowers in Europe have no external authority to whom they can appeal to investigate cases of fraud.
"They have to go to their employer, who has a vested interest in covering up cases of misconduct," he says.
Science is increasingly international. Major studies can include collaborators from several different countries, and he suggests there should be an international body accessible to all researchers that will investigate suspected fraud.
Ultimately, says Rosenberg, the scientific system must incorporate trust. "You trust co-authors when you write a paper, and peer reviewers at journals trust that scientists at research institutions like Karolinska are acting with integrity."
Without trust, the whole system falls apart. It's the trust of the public, an elusive asset once it has been betrayed, that science depends upon for its very existence. Scientific research is overwhelmingly financed by tax dollars, and the need for the goodwill of the public is more than an abstraction.
The Macchiarini affair raises a profound question of trust and responsibility: Should multiple co-authors be held responsible for a lead author's misconduct?
Karolinska apparently believes so. When the institution at last owned up to the scandal, it vindictively found Karl Henrik-Grinnemo, one of the whistleblowers, guilty of scientific misconduct as well. It also designated two other whistleblowers as "blameworthy" for their roles as co-authors of the papers on which Macchiarini was the lead author.
As a result, the whistleblowers' reputations and employment prospects have become collateral damage. Accusations of research misconduct can be a career killer. Research grants dry up, employment opportunities evaporate, publishing becomes next to impossible, and collaborators vanish into thin air.
Grinnemo contends that co-authors should only be responsible for their discrete contributions, not for the data supplied by others.
"Different aspects of a paper are highly specialized," he says, "and that's why you have multiple authors. You cannot go through every single bit of data because you don't understand all the parts of the article."
This is especially true in multidisciplinary, translational research, where there are sometimes 20 or more authors. "You have to trust co-authors, and if you find something wrong you have to notify all co-authors. But you couldn't go through everything or it would take years to publish an article," says Grinnemo.
Though the pressures facing scientists are very real, the problem of misconduct is not inevitable. Along with increased support from governments and industry, a change in academic culture that emphasizes quality over quantity of published studies could help encourage meritorious research.
But beyond that, trust will always play a role when numerous specialists unite to achieve a common goal: the accumulation of knowledge that will promote human health, wealth, and well-being.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly credited The New York Times with breaking the news of the Anversa retractions, rather than Retraction Watch and STAT, which jointly published the exclusive on October 14th. The piece in the Times ran on October 15th. We regret the error.]
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.
Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”