Suggestions of Fraud Rattle Alzheimer's Research Field

Investigation casts doubt on fundamental work from 2006
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 26, 2022 10:35 AM CDT
Suggestions of Fraud Rattle Alzheimer's Research Field
   (Getty/Lars Neumann)

In the world of Alzheimer's research, it's a bombshell. A new investigation has raised allegations that landmark research conducted in 2006 was fabricated, reports NBC News. The journal Science is out with a report that casts serious doubt on the work of Sylvain Lesne of the University of Minnesota, whose research identified a particular brain protein as a main culprit in the disease. The journal's six-month investigation is based on the work of neuroscientist Matthew Schrag of Vanderbilt University, who first suggested that Lesne doctored images used in his research into the protein known as "amyloid beta star 56." The upshot is that Lesne allegedly altered the images in his work to exaggerate the protein's significance. Lesne has not responded to the Science report. Coverage provides a sense of the magnitude:

  • Lesne's 2006 work is "seminal" in the field, per Science Alert, which notes that it has been cited by more than 2,200 papers as a reference.
  • His work has "been so influential on the course of Alzheimer's research over the past two decades that any evidence of manipulation or false study results could fundamentally shift thinking on the causes of the disease and dementia," per the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
  • "The immediate, obvious damage is wasted NIH funding and wasted thinking in the field because people are using these results as a starting point for their own experiments," Stanford's Thomas Sudhof tells Science.
  • However, some scientists are making the case that, even if Lesne's work is at fault, the impact would be more limited than the above suggests. “I do not think the field would have developed differently without the Lesne work,” Mathias Jucker at the University of Tubingen, Germany, tells Alzforum.

Both Schrag and Science stop short of definitively accusing Lesne of fraud, with Schrag noting that he would need the original images to reach that conclusion. Instead, he has raised what he calls "red flags," and Science talks to experts who back up his skepticism. Some of the images appear to be "shockingly blatant" examples of tampering, says the University of Kentucky's Donna Wilcock. UM is conducting its own investigation into the matter, and the journal Nature has added a note to Lesne's 2006 study it published saying it was investigating as well.

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Many of Lesne's papers were co-authored by senior UM scientist Karen Ashe. "Having worked for decades to understand the cause of Alzheimer disease, so that better treatments can be found for patients, it is devastating to discover that a co-worker may have misled me and the scientific community through the doctoring of images," she wrote in email to the Minneapolis newspaper. "It is, however, additionally distressing to find that a major scientific journal has flagrantly misrepresented the implications of my work." The full story digs into the particulars of her defense. Essentially, she says the Science article "confused and exaggerated the effect (UM's) work had on downstream drug development to treat Alzheimer's-related dementia," per the newspaper. (More Alzheimer's disease stories.)

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