Key images from one of the most cited research papers on Alzheimer’s disease this century might have been intentionally fabricated, throwing off years and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded research into the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.
Matthew Schrag, a neuroscientist and physician at Vanderbilt University, stumbled upon the controversial study while investigating an experimental drug for Alzheimer’s.
The 2006 study published in Nature by neuroscientist Sylvain Lesné of the University of Minnesota (UMN) “underpins a key element of the dominant yet controversial amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s, which holds that [protein amyloid beta] Aβ clumps, known as plaques, in brain tissue are a primary cause of the devastating illness,” Science reported.
Science investigated the study and says it corroborated Schrag’s suspicions about Lesné’s research with the help of leading Alzheimer’s researchers and image analysts. The independent experts alleged that some images they reviewed were “shockingly blatant” examples of image tampering.
The authors “appeared to have composed figures by piecing together parts of photos from different experiments,” Elisabeth Bik, a molecular biologist and well-known forensic image consultant, told the publication. “The obtained experimental results might not have been the desired results, and that data might have been changed to … better fit a hypothesis.”
The report noted that the implication of the suspected fraudulent work means that hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) might have been wasted, and that the entire scientific field could have been searching in the wrong direction for the last 16 years for a cure for Alzheimer’s since thousands of studies were based on the study in question.
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The study in question came from the lab of UMN physician and neuroscientist Karen Ashe, who won the prestigious Potamkin Prize for neuroscience based partly for her work on the now-scrutinized study, which has been cited in approximately 2,300 research papers. Scientists involved in the research say that Lesné prepared all the images used in the study for publication.
Schrag said that his investigation into Lesné’s and Ashe’s research contained images that appeared to be improperly duplicated or doctored.
Harvard University’s Dennis Selkoe, who was an advocate of the research that Lesné conducted, concluded in reviewing the images that there were “certainly at least 12 or 15 images where I would agree that there is no other explanation” other than the images were intentionally doctored, which he called “very worrisome.”
Selkoe added that there were other red flags with Lesné as some of his scientific comments “made no biochemical sense” to experts because “if it did, we’d all be using” similar methods.
After being confronted about the alleged fraudulent research, which Selkoe deemed was “highly egregious,” he acknowledged that there is now “precious little clearcut evidence that” the specific amyloid beta molecule at the center of the research, amyloid beta star 56 (Aβ*56) “exists, or if it exists, correlates in a reproducible fashion with features of Alzheimer’s—even in animal models.”
Numerous papers by Lesné have been flagged by the scientists leading the investigation for possible instances of fraud, which have led to corrections that have also been problematic.
Another scientist, cell biologist Denis Vivien, a senior scientist at Caen, alleged that in a separate study with Lesné, Lesné provided “dubious” looking research images that students could not replicate. Vivien cut off all contact with Lesné after the incident, saying, “We are never safe from a student who would like to deceive us and we must remain vigilant.”