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Alzheimer's study contained manipulated data - slowing the development of effective treatments

Global Report, 03 Aug 2022
Science leaders demand crackdown on medical research fraudsters after allegations that pivotal Alzheimer's study contained manipulated data - giving false hope to families and slowing the development of effective treatments.

Science leaders are demanding a crackdown on medical research fraudsters, warning that the worst offenders pose a threat to public health and should be handed prison sentences.

And they have also called for academic journals that publish dodgy data to be slapped with hefty fines if they fail to act swiftly when fakes are exposed.

The demands come after bombshell allegations that a pivotal study on the cause of Alzheimer’s disease contained manipulated results, potentially leading other scientists down a blind alley, hindering the development of effective treatments and giving false hope to patients and their families.

It is just the latest in a string of revelations in recent months that have rocked the field of dementia research, and may see top neuroscientists face US government investigations, probes by financial authorities for misuse of public funds and deceiving shareholders, and criminal charges.

In one of the most egregious examples, allegedly falsified data led to patients on a trial risking the side effects of experimental drugs with no chance of seeing any benefit.

Some neuroscientists insist that, while deeply concerning, these problems are outweighed by the large amount of well-conducted research in the field. But others believe corruption will have significantly set back the search for an effective dementia treatment.

Importantly, doubts about some of these studies were raised almost a decade ago, The Mail on Sunday has learnt, leading many to ask why has it taken so long for problems to come to light.

The most recent study to fall under scrutiny, published in 2006, was the first to identify a protein named amyloid beta star 56 as the cause of memory loss in lab mice.

Authored by Dr Sylvain Lesné, a rising star in Alzheimer’s research at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, along with his boss Professor Karen Ashe and colleagues, it went on to be cited in more than 2,000 subsequent studies carried out by other researchers looking for a drug treatment for the devastating illness.

But some experts expressed concern that they were unable to replicate the study – a vital part of the scientific process that helps confirm findings.

More worryingly, others warned on numerous occasions that images used in the report appeared to have been faked. They alerted the journals that published the studies, yet it wasn’t until June that a warning was put on the suspect paper.

These issues were finally made public a fortnight ago when the highly respected Science magazine published a report highlighting the issues.

The article was based on findings made by neuroscientist Dr Matthew Schrag, who had analysed Dr Lesné’s work and uncovered manipulation. The key query is around lab tests, called western blots, that feature in the papers.

The technique is a way to detect proteins in samples of tissue or blood, and the results are presented visually, in digital photographs, as a series of parallel bars or bands.

his work and who is co-author of the paper, issued a statement saying: ‘Having worked for decades to understand the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, so that better treatments can be found for patients, it is devastating to discover a co-worker may have misled me and the scientific community through the doctoring of images.’

However, she went on to accuse Science magazine of misrepresenting their work and claimed that, despite the problems, the findings were valid.

Richard Smith, a former editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), who has warned that research fraud is a ‘major threat to public health’, said that the case was ‘shocking but not surprising’.

He cites research that suggests up to one in five of the estimated two million medical studies published each year could contain invented or plagiarised results, details of patients who never existed and trials that did not actually take place. He adds the problem is ‘well known about’ in science circles, yet there is a reluctance within the establishment to accept the scale of the problem.

In light of the recent debacle, he renewed calls for major changes, saying: ‘Scientific journals make vast amounts of money. If they publish fraudulent work and fail to swiftly put things right, it’s a very serious matter and they need to be held accountable. I would support fines. There also needs to be some sort of global regulator, and criminal prosecutions against those found to have carried out fraudulent research – just like there is with financial fraud.’
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