Last week a new case of scientific misconduct came to light. University of Connecticut resveratrol researcher Dipak Das was accused of serious scientific misconduct. (You can read my brief post about the case or, for all the gory details, you can follow the story on Retraction Watch.)
In this post I’d like to make two fairly simple points about the case:
1. Resveratrol and Fraud, the Bigger Issue
As far as we now know, this case of scientific misconduct occurred in the lab of one researcher with, at best, a modest reputation in his field. I don’t mean to suggest that the case should not be taken seriously, but it is unclear whether it has any impact at all on the larger body of scientific research involving resveratrol and related areas. (It’s also possible that Das is only the first of dozens of rotten eggs yet to be discovered in this embryonic field.)
On the other hand, the case offers a great example of the far-reaching and dangerous fraud that so often supports the multi-billion dollar supplement industry. Because resveratrol is considered a nutritional supplement for regulatory purposes it is not subject to the rules and regulations that restrict the marketing of drugs. But, of course, all sorts of highly dramatic medical claims are made for these products. Here’s what Bill Sardi, the president of a company that makes Longevinex, a resveratrol product, claimed about reveratrol, in a statement distributed to media (attached below):
Resveratrol is an antidepressant, an anti-inflammatory, an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-cancer, cholesterol-lowering, liver-cleansing, brain enhancing molecule. If Americans embraced resveratrol pills en masse, many prescription drugs would not be needed.
The overall conclusion is that the published evidence is not sufficiently strong to justify a recommendation for the administration of resveratrol to humans, beyond the dose which can be obtained from dietary sources.
(Fun fact: one of the co-authors of the PLoS One review article was Dipak Das.)
2. Western Blots
The above quote from Bill Sardi is part of a long, rambling, often contradictory and bizarre defense of Dipak Das and resveratrol (reprinted below). Again, I have no intention of engaging all his points– I hope that regular readers of CardioBrief have been inoculated against this sort of hokum. But I do want to make sure one point doesn’t achieve any traction. The key item in the UConn report is that Das repeatedly manipulated western blot images. Sardi first argues that the western blots aren’t important at all:
The alleged faulty tests in no way altered the outcome of his research studies. The western blot test was only one of many tests used to draw scientific conclusions in published studies.
But then Sardi tries out several new explanations, in the course of a few sentences rapidly cycling through different perspectives on the western blots. First, he states that the images weren’t altered. Then he acknowledges that they were in fact altered, but that these alterations are standard practice. Then he accuses the university of willfully ignoring this “fact.”
I asked Dr. Das directly, did he altered western blot images, or directed others in his lab to do so. While his initial answer was no, meaning he had not fabricated or altered any scientific finding, altering western blot images are a common practice in laboratories for reasons other than deception. The university chose to present their findings in a derogatory manner. Dr. Das explains that editors at scientific publications commonly request researchers enhance faded images of western blot tests so they can be duplicated in their publications. Western blot tests are frequently altered to remove backgrounds, enhance contrast and increase dots-per-inch resolution so they are suitable for publication. This had been fully explained to university officials long before. [sic]
The entire statement strikes me as a great example of the pathology of someone desperately seeking to deny, refute or minimize an inconvenient truth. One statement– that editors ask researchers to “enhance” western blots– requires an immediate response. I contacted a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has published hundreds, if not thousands of western blots during the course of his distinguished career. His response was clear and unequivocal: “manipulating images is considered tampering with data.” He then clarified:
It is one thing to change the dots-per-inch (resolution) to fit a publication’s requirements – that is not crazy. But enhancing contrast and removing background is something that seems to me to be unacceptable. I certainly emphasize to students that that is unacceptable. I know of cases where students might try to ‘clean-up’ data this way and I can imagine that in some cases a PI may not realize this has been done. But I have never heard an experienced investigator claim that a journal has asked them to remove background from a blot. Now, maybe that has happened — I cannot say — but certainly NEVER to me.
Update: Tom Bartlett of the Chronicle of Higher Education talked to a number of experts in the field to determine the significance of Das’s work not the field. In addition, longtime blogger Derek Lowe posted a detailed dissection of Sardi’s statement. Both posts are worth reading.