60 Minutes: Cancer Science Fraud at Duke

60 Minutes aired a piece last night about scientific fraud at Duke University, where data was fabricated in order to support alleged discoveries in individualized cancer therapies.  As a result of these investigations, a number of previously published scientific articles have been retracted.

Less than a week ago, I highlighted an infographic from Jen Rhee about the alarming statistics in science fraud.  I’m really disheartened that such a highly visible example came up so quickly… 

In the 60 Minutes piece, it seems clear that the fraud came from one scientist, Dr. Anil Potti, but there were some checks and balances that weren’t in place that created the circumstances.  When the research was published, many labs tried to reproduce the results, and two researchers at the University of Texas, Kevin Coombes and Keith Baggerly, began analyzing Dr. Potti’s data to verify his results.  What they found could only be explained through deliberate manipulation of the data, starting off a chain of events that led to retractions from Duke researchers, suspension of grants, and the eventual suspension of Dr. Potti from the Duke staff.

It took a dedicated newsletter, The Cancer Letter, to discover that Dr. Potti even falsified his own credentials, stating that he received a Rhodes Scholarship when he in fact did not, and trigger a thorough examination.  Unfortunately, Duke did not have enough institutional checks in place to catch this on their own. 

It was nice to see that the primary researcher in charge of the lab, Dr. Joseph Nevins, came out and took responsibility to the episode.  When Dr. Nevins was asked, after reviewing the original data to see if it had been fabricated, he said it was “abundantly clear” that it had.

Look – people make mistakes, even scientists when they are trying to analyze data and draw conclusions.  The scientific process is all about trying to find the truth, and being willing to accept the truth, even if it’s different than you’d like the truth to be.

But, as I said in my previous post on this type of fraud,

Real scientists… care about what the data is actually saying and discovering the truth.  When someone cares about something else other than the truth (money, celebrity, fame, etc.), then bad science is what you get.  Of course, when there are people involved, sometimes the truth isn’t the top priority.

The real tragedy is that people were affected and possibly harmed as a result of this fraud.   The fabricated data was used to validate a theory, which led to medical therapies that went through clinical trials, meaning that real people could have been given medicine that very well may have done harm to them.  As Dr. Coombes said during the 60 Minutes piece:

… you would be giving patients drugs that would definitely not benefit them.  So there’s clear potential for harm there.

Bad science should be rooted out, and good science needs to be advocated everywhere.  The truth is important and worth finding…

 

I currently serve as Director in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). I've served as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates and in leadership positions with Elanix, Inc. (now Agilent Technologies) and Mentor Graphics. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission and now work in New York City. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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