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A Resveratrol Research Scandal. Oh, Joy.

My inbox has exploded with the story that many reports on the effects of resveratrol appear to be fraudulent. Prof. Dipak Das of Connecticut is at the center of what looks like a huge research stink bomb, which is being well covered by Retraction Watch (here and here), among others. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a lot of good info as well.
Here’s what’s known so far: UConn has a press release saying that Das has been under investigation for the last three years, and that the university (along with the Office of Research Integrity) has uncovered substantial evidence of fraud and misconduct.

An extensive research misconduct investigation has led the University of Connecticut Health Center to send letters of notification to 11 scientific journals that had published studies conducted by a member of its faculty. Dipak K. Das, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Surgery and director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, was at the center of a far reaching, three-year investigation process that examined more than seven years of activity in Das’ lab. . .
. . .The investigation was sparked by an anonymous allegation of research irregularities in 2008. The comprehensive report, which totals approximately 60,000 pages, concludes that Das is guilty of 145 counts of fabrication and falsification of data. Inquiries are currently underway involving former members of Das’ lab; no findings have been issued to date.

Here are the details, in a long PDF, if you want them. What that report shows are a lot of manipulated Western blots, with obvious copy-and-paste artifacts. Well, they’re obvious once you’re alerted to them, at any rate – the first thing you think of when you see a gel isn’t “Hmmm. . .I wonder if that’s been Photoshopped?” At any rate, examination of presentation slides on various hard drives also showed Westerns with various regions – in some cases, every single damn band on the whole thing – which had been moved around with the “Group” and “Ungroup” tools, starting from separate unrelated files. And they’ve even tracked down the original images which formed the basis for the figures in so many other papers, once they’d been sliced and diced. Classy stuff. Dr. Das, for his part, told the investigators that he had no idea who had prepared any of these figures, a position that (since he’s the lead flippin’ author on them), strains belief. “Dr. Das has been of no help in this matter”, states the report, and I’d say that still overstates his contributions.
UConn has notified the editors of 11 journals where Das and his group had published suspect results – and on three of these journals, according to Retraction Watch, he had editorial or advisory responsibilities. Looking over the list, it’s not exactly the most high-profile publication record that you could imagine. Das’s papers do seem to have picked up a number of citations, in many cases, but I don’t really get the sense that he was driving the field. (That Chronicle link above quotes David Sinclair, of sirtuin fame, as saying that he’d never even heard of Das at all, and for what it’s worth, I hadn’t either).
Meanwhile, Retraction Watch has received a press release from Das’ lawyer, and it looks like he’s not going down without firing all his ammo. To wit, Das claims that:

. . .the charges against him involve prejudice within the university against Indian researchers. Six other East Indian researchers were also named as “potential respondents” to charges of scientific fraud, but no researchers of other ethnicities. . .
. . .Another party, a university internal investigator whom Dr. Das accuses of long-standing prejudice against foreign-born researchers, reportedly broke the lock on Dr. Das’ office door, removed computer files and personal items such as bank records and a passport, and could have manipulated data in his computer files. Dr. Das says this university investigator has had a long-standing vendetta against him going back to 1984. . .

There’s a lot more in the same vein (and great big steaming heaps of it in Das’ official response to the investigation) and it all points to a long, ugly process. The lawyers involved will have plenty to keep themselves occupied.
There’s one last big issue: Das appears to have had a business relationship with Longevinex, a well-known supplier of resveratrol supplements. I note that Bill Sardi, the managing partner of the firm that runs Longevinex, has showed up on this site in the comments section before, as have many fans of the product itself. (I know that David Sinclair has heard of those guys, because they were throwing around his name for a while, which seems to have led to talk of possible legal action). And it’s worth noting as well that Dr. Das had published work suggesting that Longevinex was superior to garden-variety resveratrol. That paper (and that journal) does not appear to be one of the ones named specifically in the fraud investigation. But one of the authors on it (other than Das) figures prominently in the UConn report. Who feels inclined to trust it?
Now for the last big issue: what does this do to the whole resveratrol/sirtuin field? Not as much as you might think. As mentioned above, Das really doesn’t seem to have been that big a figure in it, despite cranking out the publications, and a lot of interesting (although often confusing) work has come from a variety of other labs. The people who did this study in humans, for example, are (to the best of my knowledge) above reproach. But (as that post shows in its various links), there’s a lot of conflicting data about resveratrol in animal models. The whole topic is deeply confusing. But this UConn/Das business does not help clear anything up, not at all – it’s a big bucket of mud and slop dumped into the tank, which is just what we didn’t need.
And as for sirtuins, well, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the statement I made here, that resveratrol has so many off-target effects that it’s completely unsuitable as a tool to understand sirtuin biology, which is quite difficult enough to understand already, thanks very much. Sirtuins have their own wild complications and (seeming) contradictions, separate from resveratrol – this latest scandal is off to the side of that topic completely, or should be.
But I don’t mean to minimize Das’ apparent misconduct here, not at all. He’s not at the center of his field, but he looks to be at or near the center of something very dishonorable, very dishonest, and very wrong.

30 comments on “A Resveratrol Research Scandal. Oh, Joy.”

  1. dearieme says:

    “…prejudice within the university against Indian researchers”: if playing the race card is the best he can manage, he’s not got much of a defence.

  2. PharmaHeretic says:

    But isn’t most medical research fraudulent or at least disingenuous. Das is only an obvious symptom of a very systemic problem in the system.
    What about the guys who made over 700 million on the whole Sirutin scam? Are they any less guilty.. or just more clever, connected and white?

  3. Actually says:

    >the first thing you think of when you see a gel isn’t “Hmmm. >. .I wonder if that’s been Photoshopped?”
    Actually, that is the first thing I think when I see a gel.

  4. Hap says:

    1) Meh. Another professor with a pathological addiction to the cut-and-paste combo. Fields with lots of turbulence and lots of interest attract them like flies on a pile of…his papers.
    2) I would have figured that a medium-level university with an anti-Indian bias would have found itself without research. Hiring time would seem to be kind of tough if that were the case, no?
    3) I don’t know – finding the dumbest bunch of overmoneyed psychopaths to buy your concept for cash isn’t a crime, and doesn’t appear to have involved fraud. That it’s a viable business model seems the suicide note of an economic system (or at least a market) to itself.

  5. Funny how Western Blots are particularly amenable to being manipulated. Reminds me of another similar case here. And seriously, if Das is going to play the race card then he really has nothing to stand on.

  6. Spike says:

    Derek,
    That PDF isn’t that long (49 pages) in comparison to the full report which is 59,929 pages long (if you believe the footer). That’s either the mother of all reports or another error that needs correcting!

  7. JasonP says:

    “2) I would have figured that a medium-level university with an anti-Indian bias would have found itself without research. Hiring time would seem to be kind of tough if that were the case, no?”
    No, there are actually plenty of Americans who want in. The question is will their staff do their jobs and educate, or do they just want people who already have the skills so they can pump research and their own credentials.

  8. r.pal says:

    at a conference 3 years ago I came across the work presented by people in his group. It didn’t seem right to me but I did not know why. Today it is clear to me

  9. denbee says:

    I am a one gram per day, 3 year user of resveratrol. A year ago my brother called me and told me he had just had an ultra-sound of his carotid arteries and both were 99 percent occluded and he was scheduled for surgery to clean them out. He worried about me because he is only a year older than me and we share a very similar lifestyle. We are both runners. We do marathons. We eat the same diet. My ultrasound showed my carotid arteries 100% clear. There are no major differences between us except the resveratrol. It has helped my arthritis in my foot also. I am a believer based on what Dr. Sinclair reported in his initial research. The rest is fluff. I am 62 years old with 100% open carotid arteries, that’s enough for me!

  10. Authenticrev says:

    I know a few dishonest organic chemists who dont cut, copy and paste. They use the whole spectras as it is and get away with it!! The proofs are out in the literature in black and white.

  11. Hap says:

    I’m wondering – how long would it have taken Das’s allegedly foreigner-hating neighbor to plant of those gels on his hard drives, with all of the workup and everything? And without Das noticing? If he took Das’s bank records, why didn’t he call the police or the campus cops? I would be worried about that long before the university accused me of fraud. After all that, will he submit Ricochet and Enemy of the State as pieces of evidence at his trial?
    The next question is, how did the gels end up in his papers? It’s hard to believe that he found Photoshop files for random gels on his hard disk and said, “Oh, look, some gels I don’t know on my hard drive. Wonder if I can get some papers out of them?”
    On the surface, his PR statement seems…implausible.

  12. david says:

    >the first thing you think of when you see a gel isn’t “Hmmm. . .I wonder if that’s been Photoshopped?”
    Really?!? Because (to amplify on #3), that’s the first thing I think of when I see **any graphic**, and I cannot understand the mindset of anyone who doesn’t. Skepticism is the foundation of science!

  13. Anthony says:

    The fact that Das claims race prejudice when caught committing fraud makes me *more* likely to be extra skeptical about research published by Indian researchers.

  14. provocateur says:

    They should have a second look at tenure.Also the process seems excessive.I do not know how many man hours were wasted in making this massive report.

  15. Otis says:

    Now, now.. Race bating researchers? Don’t do that Anthony. Respect that white researchers know how to use photoshop, fluffery, and the like to walk over the edge, walk the edge, and go over the edge.
    Now, the Longevinex paper hasn’t been out that long. It’ll probably pop up for the fact that it makes no sense, and Das gave no reasoning as to why it worked. Give it time.
    As for the tenure bashers, this is a fraud case. He’s not going to another university. He won’t be able to even teach at a good high school. What would the feds do if UConn didn’t take the hit and return all the federal money? This isn’t work to fire someone, it’s to hunt down a million dollars of taxpayer funds that were stolen.

  16. Dr Aust says:

    While I don’t doubt that subtle forms of institutional discrimination continue to exist in science, as in other walks of life, citing that as an explanation when one is accused (with a lot of documentation) of egregious and extensive fraud… hmmm. Not really buying it. It seems kind of reflexive. And desperate.
    In line with what others have said about ‘playing the last card’, I’m reminded slightly of the old Hunter Thompson joke about how you’d know when someone was REALLY busted on some criminal charge by whether they claimed to have found Jesus.

  17. Rob says:

    It’s become sort of a common practice to edit out the “interesting” bands in a gel for presentation. Not a good idea in terms of academic honesty, but it sure makes for pretty figures and is easier than running a good gel.
    Ad hominem attacks against those who investigate you are essentially a confession of guilt.

  18. NoDrugsNoJobs says:

    I have been snorting 1 teaspoon of vinegar up my left nostril for 4 years and haven’t had a single heart attack during that time period although many thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Americans who have not followed my regimen have had serious and even fatal heart attacks during that time period – please consider my method in case you cannot afford resveratrol or possibly doing both if you can – I also believe that snorting resveratrol in the left nostril could work even better. As far as I know, anybody who has done that consistently has not had a heart attack yet though I am not sure if anybody has done it.

  19. pete says:

    I read Dipak Das’s official response when this story broke. The thoughts and language — even the spelling! — are fairly unhinged. Considering how important this document is to defending his case, it’s pretty stunning stuff.
    Perhaps this document can serve as a warning, highlighting the toll that can be exacted on those engaged in scientific fraud.

  20. davo says:

    We NEED scientific fraud! Helps to allay complacency and keep us on our toes. Part of the equilibrium in any (sufficiently complex) healthy
    system is those who do not play the game by the rules. Game Theory 101. Any who disagree are obviously racists.

  21. Anonymous says:

    @22 davo
    I get it, i.e., the Game Theory “value” of scientific fraud.
    But, as they say about the kindergarten playground (and Bruce Willis movies), “It’s all fun n’ games until someone really gets hurt”.

  22. Student says:

    I like the article in Science saying that since we don’t have any jobs we should get into quackery…I guess someone beat them to the punch..
    sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2011_12_23/caredit.a1100143

  23. bigmic says:

    @nodrugsnojobs,
    Pretty funny post but its underlying message is wrong. Resveratrol in small doses makes humans and animals healthier, in many different respects. Perhaps it will be proven to prevent many of the diseases for which you presumably make your living either developing or selling pharmacy products.

  24. MD MJ says:

    Dear Mr/Ms @nodrugsnojobs,
    That elicited the first chuckle of the day for me, thank you.
    I have been thinking about upping the ante on your trial protocol by trying a vinegar enema. My atheromatous plaques feel better already.
    MD MJ
    Oz

  25. RKN says:

    Tis bad enough that published results in respectable journals by credible labs can’t be reproduced, without chasing fraudulent crap like this.
    (prefix with http:) //online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203764804577059841672541590.html

  26. smarties66 says:

    Interesting stuff from ”Retraction Watch”
    Harvard’s David Sinclair went further, telling The New York Times that he didn’t know who Das was:
    “Today I had to look up who he is. His papers are mostly in specialty journals,” said David Sinclair, a leading resveratrol expert at the Harvard Medical School.
    His comments to The Chronicle of Higher Education were similar:
    David Sinclair, a professor of pathology at Harvard University who is known for his discovery that resveratrol appears to extend the life of mice and fruit flies, said he had not heard of Das. “I’ve not worked with him,” Sinclair wrote in an e-mail. “Looking through it, the work is generally not published in leading molecular-biology journals.”
    But knowing something about how the often close-knit world of science works, we were a bit skeptical of that claim. So was Derek Lowe, of the In the Pipeline blog:
    Das appears to have had a business relationship with Longevinex, a well-known supplier of resveratrol supplements. I note that Bill Sardi, the managing partner of the firm that runs Longevinex, has showed up on this site in the comments section before, as have many fans of the product itself. (I know that David Sinclair has heard of those guys, because they were throwing around his name for a while, which seems to have led to talk of possible legal action).
    So when we uncovered a link showing that Das and Sinclair served together on the scientific committee of the “first international scientific conference of Resveratrol and Health” in Denmark in 2010, we figured we’d ask Sinclair whether he had misspoken. He responded:
    I apologize. I did not expect my off-the-cuff comments to be printed. I will be more careful.
    Duh!!!???

  27. boss hogg says:

    It’s not that the whole sirtuin field is alice in wonderland in corporate fasion, GSK bet BIG with shareholder $$ that the market had Sirtris wrong. The science was crap, internal and external scientists told them this specifically and directly, yet they decided to plop $720m down…$10/share higher than market price. Betting with the corporate card… The irony is that GSK is preaching accountability in their annual HR slogans to regular employees. Meanwhile, the odds of execs making smart decisions with corporate money will never move the company along when they are rewarded for dumb decisions with no repurcussions for negligence. They simply need to be savvy enough to cover their tracks. My gut feeling is that buyers remorse probably set in quite quickly following the purchase, once review of the assets and Sirtris came to light and Dipp and Westphal were nailed selling reservatol on the side…that was quietly handled not to raise public awareness. Witty, Vallance and Moncef are simply trying to put time in between the acquisition to distance headlines traceable to their sole decisions, which is even more dispicible. The conflict of interests that surround Moncef, his philandering ways, and organizational reporting structure and the entire Sirtris execs cannot be made public to the shareholders. It is sad that the entrepeneurial drive of execs from 30+ years are gone and consideration for fiscal fiduciary laws for all corporate execs are now necessary.
    http://www.forbes.com/2008/04/23/pharmacuticals-sirtris-glaxosmithkline-biz-healthcare-cx_mh_0424glaxo.html.

  28. cancer_man says:

    Wait… Westphal tried to sell SRT501 at cost, but that was a full two years after GSK bought Sirtris. That isn’t “quite quickly after the purchase.”
    I also don’t see how distance is being put between the purchase considering the New York Times ran a front page story on Sinclair and SRT1720 last summer.

  29. randy rudd says:

    I’m trusting my “trick knee” instincts and dismissing this as just another snooty academic playing footsie with big pharmaceutical corporate interests. Any time a “natural” substance, product, or nutrient poses the slightest threat to conventional medicine , even adjunct, it is trivialized, scandalized, or just poo pooed. I state with ninety per cent certainty, that as a cancer survivor my odds of survival and or long term remission are augmented by nutritional and supplemental efforts in addition to conventional medical means. In short, the jig is up; the health care industry, pharmaceuticals in particular, are threatened by in most cases, substantial anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of a good many natural means. Get off your high horse, use that noggin for good, and cease soundbaoarding for corporate mega powers. Your column smacks of arrogance.

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