This is a hell of a title. I have been thinking about a good crazy title for several hours because I wanted to shock you with it and to make sure you read this article. So please take a seat and put on your seat belt while reading this.
It is quite well-known that academia has its quirks that force many ethical academicians out of the field because the stuff that goes on. You probably know by now that I also left academia and returned to art as my solace just as Dr. Walter Nelson-Rees has, except that he became an art dealer and I am an art creator; same thing only different ends of the rope. Dr. Nelson-Rees was at the University of California at Berkeley working on cancer research from 1975 through 1981 according to the Discover Magazine article “Trial and Error” by Jill Neimark. The magazine is by subscription only but I highlight some of its key points and bring a parallel with the bad drug syndrome we seem to be facing these days. I will also explain the connection of this finding to my leaving academia. I think you will understand all this now in one swell swoop. So let’s begin.
Cancer Research at its Best (or Worst):
For scientists around the world who want to work in drug research, they often need to work on live cultured cells, cells that have an infinite life (long science story, I will not explain infinite life here). Infinite live cells are valuable assets that are hard to create and thus hard and pricey to purchase. Only a few labs carry cancerous cells specific to a certain cancer that have infinite lives. Thus if a researcher wants to work on say thyroid cancer, he/she must obtain cells with only thyroid cancer to work on. However, some cancers are more virulent than others and with improper care, contamination may result. All is well since one can identify that the cells are contaminated and order new ones. Right?…Maybe not…
Dr. Kenneth Ain is one of the lead thyroid cancer cell repository founders and after discovering the contamination of his cells with another cancer, he sent letters to all institutes and all cancer research laboratories in the country and to 69 investigators directly. Of all of these only 2 responded back to him–the paper does not detail if the response was “yay, thank you” or “so who cares” but note all the rest have ignored it and continued their research on thyroid cancer knowing that the cells they were working on had other cancer infections. HeLa cancer cells – a very fast growing line of cervical cancer cells – are the most likely culprits. They have taken over – by cross-contamination of equipment – many other types of cancer cells in research labs, no matter what the original cancer cell line may have been. Thus if scientists continue their research for thyroid cancer cure on cervical cancer cells I don’t think their results will be reliable and promising… what do you think?
Is this a new story? No. The knowledge that cross-contamination occurs is actually quite old. 1967 (yes, nearly a half a century ago) it was discovered that there was something wrong with the cancer cells in research, since experiments showed inconsistent and unexpected results. HeLa apparently contaminated over 20% of the cancer cell lines used for research and so most cancer research, be it breast, thyroid, melanoma, you name it, used cells that were infected with the HeLa cervical cancer.
Hundreds of publications later and after the many drug trials using the wrong cells, 11 patents and several NIH funded research grants, the whistle was blown again by Dr. Nelson-Rees. This move unfortunately ended his career. He published an article in Science, reintroducing the same truth that years earlier was already announced, that all these papers, drug tests, and drugs that were the results of tests on the contaminated cancer cells were bogus because they used cultured cell lines with cancers unrelated to the disease they were finding cure for. His colleagues were, of course, angry with Nelson-Reese even though they already were told by Dr. Ain long time earlier that the cells were contaminated. To top it off, the then editor-in-chief of Nature (John Maddox) wrote a very critical article on Dr. Nelson-Rees’ effort closing the door behind Nelson-Rees’ option to remain in academia. The NIH terminated Nelson-Rees’ contract, and with his colleagues keeping a distance as if he had Ebola, he left academia and joined the arts.
In 2009, a conscientious cell biologist sent letters to 45,000 scientists telling them to test their research cell lines for contamination. Most of the cells were of course contaminated and so the NIH set up a new standard to fund research that works only on uncontaminated cell lines. But do you suppose they actually followed that standard? The NIH continued to fund research regardless, so the work on the wrong cells continued, with everyone knowing that the work was a total farce… business as usual in medical research!
Today, after nearly 50 years of knowing that many of the cells used are contaminated, research in cancer still continues on those cells! Luckily some of the drugs failed clinical trials and were not made available for the public–those are the ones we know of. How many do we not know of?
I can give you another angle of how many we do not know of based on what happened to me (and I am sure to many others). When I was working on my doctorate, I was nominated by my professor and invited to the University of Paris that held a 2-week special training session for promising doctoral candidates. Each candidate was paired one-on-one with a famous professor–the one I was paired with received his Nobel Prize a few years later. My work in that two-week period indicated that the theory this professor awaited the Nobel Prize for was wrong. Not surprisingly he did not agree with me on the spot. So back at home it took me a year to work out the proof – both using laboratory findings and mathematics – that his theory cannot be right. When I presented my findings to him I received the following short email: “You are right but keep it quiet.”
I think you now have a better idea on how many peer-reviewed journal articles are wrong yet get published anyway; how many laboratory research outcomes are wrong but the drugs are approved anyway, and how many drugs out there were meant to treat a pimple but are prescribed to cure bacterial infections or cancer.
To give you one little example of how bogus peer-reviewed journal articles are:
“In October 2013, Science correspondent John Bohannon published an article reporting a sting operation. He concocted a fraudulent scientific paper studded with anomalies and ethical approval problems, and sent it to more than 300 open-access peer-reviewed journals; more than half accepted the fake manuscript… Of 53 papers deemed ‘landmark’ studies over the last decade, only six held up and were reproducible… There is a rising tide of worry over the spike in fraudulent scientific papers.” (Quote from the article in Discover as linked to above, page 50)
As of the writing of the article in Discover for the November 2014 issue, 22 journals (a drop in the bucket) “require cell line authentication.” Nature, since 2013, requires that every author report the source of the cells they used for research and how the uncontaminated verification was reached.
So, starting all research published since 2013 in 22 journals plus Nature, we can have a certain level of trust that at least they used the right samples for the research. There are over 25 thousand scientific publications, from which several hundred focuses on cell research in some shape or form, from which 23 make sure the right samples are used for their experiments!
Whether the actual research is correctly reported, still remains in question based on the fake experiment submission and acceptance of John Bohannon’s article. And there is more. Every single journal submission is reviewed by 3 scientists, at least 2 of whom must agree on whether to publish or trash. In my personal experience as a reviewer, I found that I rejected over 80% of the submissions, mostly because I was the only scientist who actually understood the inaccuracies in the mathematics and statistics required for the complex research. The other 2 reviewers approved and the articles got published anyway!
So much for science, and so much for your health! The fact that very capable and ethical researchers elect to work as artists or art dealers should tell you that the system is far from perfect.
Your comments are welcome as always!