An array of errors

Written by The Economist

oncologyInvestigations into a case of alleged scientific misconduct have revealed numerous holes in the oversight of science and scientific publishing

ANIL POTTI, Joseph Nevins and their colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, garnered widespread attention in 2006. They reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that they could predict the course of a patient’s lung cancer using devices called expression arrays, which log the activity patterns of thousands of genes in a sample of tissue as a colourful picture (see above).

A few months later, they wrote in Nature Medicine that they had developed a similar technique which used gene expression in laboratory cultures of cancer cells, known as cell lines, to predict which chemotherapy would be most effective for an individual patient suffering from lung, breast or ovarian cancer.

At the time, this work looked like a tremendous advance for personalised medicine—the idea that understanding the molecular specifics of an individual’s illness will lead to a tailored treatment. The papers drew adulation from other workers in the field, and many newspapers, including this one (see article), wrote about them. The team then started to organise a set of clinical trials of personalised treatments for lung and breast cancer. Unbeknown to most people in the field, however, within a few weeks of the publication of the Nature Medicine paper a group of biostatisticians at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, led by Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, had begun to find serious flaws in the work.

Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes had been trying to reproduce Dr Potti’s results at the request of clinical researchers at the Anderson centre who wished to use the new technique. When they first encountered problems, they followed normal procedures by asking Dr Potti, who had been in charge of the day-to-day research, and Dr Nevins, who was Dr Potti’s supervisor, for the raw data on which the published analysis was based—and also for further details about the team’s methods, so that they could try to replicate the original findings.

A can of worms

Dr Potti and Dr Nevins answered the queries and publicly corrected several errors, but Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes still found the methods’ predictions were little better than chance. Furthermore, the list of problems they uncovered continued to grow. For example, they saw that in one of their papers Dr Potti and his colleagues had mislabelled the cell lines they used to derive their chemotherapy prediction model, describing those that were sensitive as resistant, and vice versa. This meant that even if the predictive method the team at Duke were describing did work, which Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes now seriously doubted, patients whose doctors relied on this paper would end up being given a drug they were less likely to benefit from instead of more likely.

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