Monday, February 9, 2009

When Scientists Go Bad - The Ramifications of Ethical Lapses

A doctor in the UK "changed and misreported results" in his research, "creating the appearance of a possible link" between the MMR vaccine and autism, according to an investigation by The Sunday Times . In 1998 the results are published in a well-respected medical journal, The Lancet. After publication the rates of MMR (Mumps Measles, Rubella) inoculation fall from 92% to below 80%. And last week official figures show that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported last year, compared to only 56 in 1998. Two children have died from the disease.

Scientific integrity is occasionally called into question, and cases like this, while rare, can make the public reconsider the trust they put in us. In this particular case, the data published in the Lancet did not reflect the actual data collected during the research. According to the Times investigation, there were clear cases of data being manipulated to create false conclusions. Worse, there appears to be significant conflicts of interest and litigation bias that influenced the findings. None of these conflicts were reported by the doctor. And the fraudulent data led to a mass scare and distrust of the MMR vaccine, leading to the very epidemic that many years of the vaccine's use had held off. Fear of the cure caused the disease to rise for not only the individuals refusing the vaccine but the population as a whole since the diseases are so contagious.

Cases like this demonstrate why scientific fraud is rare. True, the peer-review process of journal publication missed this one, largely because the data presented were not the data collected. Without external review of the original files, it is hard to determine that someone has "fixed" the numbers. But another tenet of science, repeatability, helped flush out the deceit. Other scientists attempting to replicate the findings were not able to reach similar results. Samples that were reported to show signs of disease were reanalyzed at other laboratories and found to show no signs of those diseases at all. Digging into the raw data, which by law is kept confidential, especially when it involves children as did this study, was made possible by permission given by the parents for outside review.

In the end, the ramifications of deceit can be catastrophic. Which is why scientists work so hard to keep high ethical standards. But while that is true as a group, sometimes individual scientists lose their way.

Click here and here for a full account of the Sunday Times investigation. For a timeline of key dates in the crisis, click here.

No comments: