Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fame in science

Uh oh!  This one has been percolating in my head for a while.  Do I write it and risk offending a lot of really smart people?  Or should I just do some vinyasa flow and just let this negative energy drain into the cosmos?  In the end, I did both.  My IT bands feel great, and I wrote something I feel is a lot more balanced than it could have been.

Let's start here:

In 2006, Anil Potti was a shining star.  He was in a fellowship at Duke and was on a streamlined path toward a full professorship.  Between 2006 and 2010, he published a slew of papers in all of the highest impact journals.  You see, Potti was a microarray expert while genomics was still the king of the roost.  During Potti's prestigious fellowship he had figured out how to decode the extremely complex relationships between drugs and cancer cell responses.  Figured it out?  He mastered it.  He could tell you from a microarray the target of the drug and whether it would work on one particular cancer cell and not another.  He got so good at it, in fact, that patients were being treated based off of what Potti could figure out about the microarray of their particular tumor.  The program was absolutely groundbreaking and signaled that genomics was finally coming into it's own and was going to change the battle against cancer into our favor.

There was just one problem.  The data was full of fabrications.  Microarray outputs are commonly converted into simple Excel format and you process from there.  I line mine up across, say control vs. treated, and divide to get my fold changes, sort by fold change and toss all the low numbers.  A number of short communications have been written about Potti's papers, like this one.  In them you'll find all sorts of fantastic observations, such as when the results didn't match what Potti wanted, he simply cut the columns and sorted them until they showed what he wanted.  He didn't do it a little.  He did it a lot.

In 2010, the papers began to be retracted, and the clinical trials were stopped.  Keep in mind, people were actually being treated with the chemotherapy agents that these fabricated microarrays were telling physicians to use.  The biggest problem?  The blatant errors in these microarray analyses were pointed out by a team at M.D. Anderson in 2007.  The primary author of the letter to Nature Medicine was Kevin Coombes, a guy who had written a whole bunch of proteomics papers and new a little something about reproducibility of -omics data.

And here is where, in my humble opinion, Scientific Fame came into play.  In 2007 the group at M.D.A., pointed out blatant errors in one of Potti's initial studies, and he immediately hit back. The M.D.A. evidence was solid,  but it was too late.  Potti's star was already rising.  And rising so fast that one detractor couldn't slow it down, and it wasn't until after it had gone to the worst possible level, to actually endangering the well being of real people in clinical trials.

And this is why I have a problem with this thing:

The Analytical Scientist (whatever that is) set up a ranking system based on a secret nomination and judging system to rank the 100 most influential scientists in analytical chemistry.  Are there some great scientists on that list?  Absolutely.  Are these people who have changed some of the fundamentals of chemistry and how we do it, possibly forever?  Yes there are.  I'm not arguing that there are some great people on this list.  What I'm arguing is:  whats the point?  I know the point for "The Analytical Scientist," this thing is generating some Ad revenue.  People like lists.

But here is the danger:  This is science.  We're supposed to be weighing out every idea by it's merits and by the strength of the proof behind it.  If we start to judge the idea by who said it, rather than purely by the merits of the evidence, then we've missed the point.  The next revolution in chemistry may come from a student at a small school with 300 students in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and her ideas should be treated with the exact same degree of skepticism as the ideas of every person on this list.  I'm not saying that we're not doing that, but it sure seems like if we're going to invite the possibility of that kind of bias, then this would be a good start in that direction.

End rant.

Update:  Yes, I understand the hypocrisy in the fact that this is all being written by a guy who blogs a sizeable percentage of his thought into the universe every day.  That's what makes it fun(ny)!  Don't trust anything I write here, I try to warn you about my biases, and certainly don't think that I wouldn't have been super psyched if my name was on that list.  Maybe they'll extend it to the top 10,000 and I'll make the cut one day and I'll never write a bad thing about whatever that magazine was called again.

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