Alzheimer’s research made the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. News broke pertaining to significant evidence that a high profile researcher may have falsified years of data surrounding the role of amyloid oligomers in AD. I won’t go into what happened in great detail. Alzheimer’s Research UK have already done a great digest on what this all means and the potential implications which you can read via this link.
However, in the aftermath of this, a quick scroll through Twitter gave an insight into how dangerous this kind of scientific misconduct can be. Let me start by briefly contextualising the misconduct. The researcher stands accused of falsifying evidence of the discovery of an amyloid oligomer that is toxic and potentially dementia-causing. They amyloid hypothesis is one of the major theories behind the pathology of AD. I saw many believing that this news signified the end of the amyloid hypothesis. Years of research all for nothing and based on a lie. I said I won’t go into huge details on the story but let me state on thing before we move on. This is not the end days for the amyloid hypothesis. There is a wealth of data out there showing considerable evidence of toxic amyloid oligomers playing a role in AD. The particular oligomer this researcher “found” is now hugely under question but it is a very small part of a much bigger picture. It’s like throwing out and entire bowl of fruit because one apple went off.
But this is the danger here. When something like this happens, people are naturally going to start questioning everything. If one researcher falsified data, surely everything else could be falsified too? In theory… yes, but it is very easy to spot the fact from fiction and I will come on to that later. For now let’s move on to why it is so important to maintain public trust by conducting our research with integrity, ethics and morals.
As researchers, you could argue that we are technically also public servants. Our work is funded by charitable organisations, most of whom receive their money from public donations. We are often indirectly financed by the public. More than that, we are conducting research aimed at benefiting public health. It is our duty to be open and honest about our findings. Research grows like a tree. You plant a small amount of data and from that it develops roots and grows out into multiple branches. If the seed turns out to be rotten, the whole tree dies. The same can happen if you are not open about your findings.
In this scenario, the initial work that was published led to multiple further research projects and millions of dollars in funding. The work branched out into a wider network and now every single finding is under dispute. It seems to be traced to a single researcher but everyone who worked for them or with them now finds themselves questioning the data and hypotheses that came from those first findings. Years of work and millions in funding have essentially led to nothing. If this happens because your idea didn’t pan out that is okay. It happens. If it happens because you lied about the original findings and continued to maintain that lie, it becomes a much bigger issue and has a much wider impact on the academic community.
On top of that, there is the impact this has on people who are watching their families struggle with something like AD. That scroll on Twitter I mentioned earlier revealed a lot. People feeling angry, upset and failed by research. They either lost relatives or were watching relatives go through the gruelling progression of dementia and there was a general sense of “decades wasted while my grandparent suffered”. In reality, those decades were not wasted as this case represents a minority and we have had a huge amount of new insight into the disease. Something like this, however, really dents that public trust and understandably can cause people to lose faith in science. If you lose public trust, you lose far more than the donations to the charitable organisations that you need to fund your work. People stop respecting your expertise and advice on critical issues and that can lead to quite dangerous territory.
So let’s end on some reassurance. I will start with a very simple point. You cannot cheat biology. Ultimately this all came tumbling down because other researchers independent to the person in question could not replicate those same findings. Their data was literally too good to be true. You can manipulate your figures all you want but if a protein doesn’t exist, you can’t make a cell produce it. Eventually someone is going to go “hold on a minute… this doesn’t make any sense”.
And that, consequently, is the sure fire way to work out if research is genuine that I eluded to earlier. The reason all is not lost for the amyloid hypothesis is because we have hundreds of independent research groups replicating very similar findings. If a result is true, you will see it reported by multiple research institutes or groups. Research is usually very good at being self-policing like that. However, it does require us to be open and honest about what we discover. A negative result should not be demonised. It can often lead to different discoveries.
Ultimately, this case can act as a stark reminder of the importance of ethics and integrity in research. This particular researcher has lost their reputation and everything they have done is under disrepute. It could also lead to criminal charges. They have potentially coaxed millions in funding from external organisations based on data that they knew was falsified (allegedly). That sounds like fraud to me. In short… don’t fudge your data guys! It’s really not worth it!
Dr Sam Moxon is a biomaterials scientist at the University of Manchester. His expertise falls on the interface between biology and engineering. His PhD focussed on regenerative medicine and he now works on trying to develop 3D bioprinting techniques with human stem cells, so that we better understand and treat degenerative diseases. Outside of the lab he hikes through the Lake District and is an expert on all things Disney.