August 5, 2010

Scientific Ethics in the Spotlight Once More

by Heather Falconer

A full review of three clinical trials being run at Duke University has recently begun after the integrity of individuals involved in the project was called into question. The trials involve assigning treatment methods to cancer patients based on the sensitivity of their cancer to certain drugs, and are an outflow from the discoveries of cancer researcher Anil Potti and cancer geneticist Joseph Nevins (both from Duke).

What began as a question of accurate data recording and reporting methods has since turned into allegations of resume padding on the part of Potti. While the investigation of both Potti and the science behind his various projects continues, it reminds us how even the rigorous peer review process we’ve come to know and love so well is not foolproof.

Potti and Nevins have had numerous articles and studies published in prominent journals. Only in the last few years, however, did anyone come to question the work being presented. This came as a direct result of biostatisticians Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes’ inability to replicate the results.  The work of Potti and Nevins identifies particular signatures associated with cancer cell lines, and identifies the treatments that those cancers are most responsive to. However, according to Baggerly and Coombes, these signatures have been incredibly difficult to replicate and discussions with Potti and Nevins yielded little help. As Baggerly’s frustrations grew, so did his need to find out what was really going on…which has cracked a large can of worms.

We await the results of the investigation into both the clinical trial and the researcher in question, and will keep an open mind. But in the meantime, it’s a good idea to remember that even with the best of intentions, playing with numbers and facts will always come back to haunt. For more on the peer review process and working with data, visit the Visionlearning website. For more on this investigation, click here.

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.