Lab Coats Don’t Protect You from the Fall

Scientists Yielding to Temptation Block Medical Progress

My childhood best friend lives 800 miles away. The last time I phoned, her husband joined the call as well. She needed him in the conversation, she said, “so he can explain things when I get confused.” She especially wanted him to help her say that their teenage sons had taken her on an outing, and she’d had a lot of fun.

She has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

So I took personally the breaking news that research foundational to decades of work on Alzheimer’s treatments appears to have been falsified.

It all started when two neuroscientists grew suspicious of an experimental drug called Simufilam (developed by Cassava Sciences). The neuroscientists hired an attorney, who in August of 2021 hired Matthew Schrag—a neuroscientist whose own research contradicted some of the manufacturer’s claims, and who has a history of being willing to make waves—to take a closer look. (An interesting sidenote: Schrag was homeschooled.)

Schrag examined published images about the drug and its underlying science and found that many of the images appeared to have been altered or duplicated.

An “Elaborate Mirage”?

That’s bad. But the problems ran far deeper than one drug: “Schrag’s sleuthing drew him into a different episode of possible misconduct, leading to findings that threaten one of the most cited Alzheimer’s studies of this century and numerous related experiments.”

That study, which came out of the University of New Mexico lab under the supervision of Karen Ashe, and whose first-listed author is Sylvain Lesné:

underpins a key element of the dominant yet controversial amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s, which holds that Aβ clumps, known as plaques, in brain tissue are a primary cause of the devastating illness, which afflicts tens of millions globally. In what looked like a smoking gun for the theory and a lead to possible therapies, Lesné and his colleagues discovered an Aβ subtype and seemed to prove it caused dementia in rats.

However, “If Schrag’s doubts are correct, Lesné’s findings were an elaborate mirage.”

And it looks like Schrag was right:

A 6-month investigation by Science provided strong support for Schrag’s suspicions and raised questions about Lesné’s research. A leading independent image analyst and several top Alzheimer’s researchers—including George Perry of the University of Texas, San Antonio, and John Forsayeth of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)—reviewed most of Schrag’s findings at Science’s request. They concurred with his overall conclusions, which cast doubt on hundreds of images, including more than 70 in Lesné’s papers. Some look like “shockingly blatant” examples of image tampering, says Donna Wilcock, an Alzheimer’s expert at the University of Kentucky.

The authors “appeared to have composed figures by piecing together parts of photos from different experiments,” says Elisabeth Bik, a molecular biologist and well-known forensic image consultant. “The obtained experimental results might not have been the desired results, and that data might have been changed to … better fit a hypothesis.”

Jana Christopher, another independent image analyst, “concurred about the many duplicated images and some markings suggesting cut-and-pasted Western blots flagged by Schrag. She also identified additional dubious blots and backgrounds he had missed.”

Schrag points out that the problematic study “not only represents a substantial investment in [NIH] research support, but has been cited ... thousands of times and thus has the potential to mislead an entire field of research.”

Wasted Funding, Wasted Thinking

Stanford University neuroscientist Thomas Südhof, a Nobel laureate and an expert on Alzheimer’s, agrees: “The immediate, obvious damage is wasted NIH funding and wasted thinking in the field because people are using these results as a starting point for their own experiments.”

Billions of dollars (your tax dollars) have been spent. Hundreds of clinical trials have failed. Meanwhile, competing theories that might actually be based on reality have been squeezed out: “Scientists who advance other potential Alzheimer’s causes, such as immune dysfunction or inflammation, complain they have been sidelined.”

No wonder there hasn’t been much progress in treating Alzheimer’s. As Schrag notes, “you can’t cheat to cure a disease. Biology doesn’t care.”

Harvard University’s Dennis Selkoe, who examined Schrag’s findings and agrees that there is clear evidence of fraud, says it’s important that malfeasance in science be exposed. Nevertheless, he worries that this “episode might further undercut public trust in science during a time of increasing skepticism and attacks.”

Yes, it might. And it should. Not because science is untrustworthy, but because scientists are.

Wearing a white lab coat doesn’t magically make a person immune to temptation. Just like the rest of us, scientists want success, money, respect, job security, power. Just like the rest of us, scientists sometimes cheat or fight dirty in order to get those things.

Intelligent Design proponents have been pointing this out for years. Darwinian evolutionists use fraudulent images in order to advance their narrative; they fight opposing theories not by addressing the evidence, but by getting people fired. This is not science.

As with every other field of human endeavor, successful science requires virtue in its practitioners. If moral virtue is dismissed as outdated or irrelevant, we all suffer—not only spiritually, but physically.

A world built on lies simply does not work.

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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