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Falsified research and its impact on human lives

Recently I watched an interesting 60 Minutes report that uncovered an ongoing investigation over what appeared to be "breakthrough" cancer research. Instead, however, the research is likely to be among the most significant fabrications in medical history. The research focused on tailoring specific chemotherapeutics to patients with advanced stages of cancer, supposedly affording a greater chance of overcoming the disease.

According to the report, the researcher, Dr. Anil Potti, remains the subject of investigation and despite wide acknowledgment from officials at Duke University (the institution supporting his research) that the data had been tampered with, Potti remains in practice; albeit, not at Duke. Since these revelations, the vice-chancellor of research at Duke has been overseeing "one of the most significant retractions [of published literature] in medical history."

Interestingly, this case does not represent the only instance of high profile research fraud in recent memory. You may recall a few years ago when a South Korean researcher, Hwang Woo-Suk, claimed to have cloned human stem cells -- he subsequently resigned when it was discovered that this had not been the case.

In light of these cases, it is important to revisit the importance of due diligence in evaluating research results before clinical trials can commence. Surely the practice of evidence-based medicine will continue to evolve and insist upon higher standards from researchers but it will remain cumbersome to completely avert malicious adulteration of raw data. One possibility is to have data recorded and aggregated by an independent party thereby preventing researchers from altering data (similar to triple blind studies); however, this may not be financially feasible, particular for studies of lower impact and scale.

What was particularly disturbing with the research fabrication at Duke was that it cheated many cancer patients who sought last ditch efforts to overcome their disease. Unlike the case of human stem-cell cloning, this research directly influenced and impacted the lives of individuals and underscores the necessity of the peer-review community to remain vigilant in their assessment of research.

What are your thoughts?

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