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.]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.