Allegations that part of a major 2006 study on Alzheimer’s disease caused alarm in the research community, calling into question the validity of the study’s impressive findings.
The journal Science reported Thursday that the images in a much-cited study published 16 years ago in the journal Nature proved that they could be doctored.
The findings cast doubt on the work of Sylvain Lesne, a neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, and his research, which has fueled interest in a particular set of proteins as promising targets for Alzheimer’s disease treatment. Lesne did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News and did not comment to Science magazine.
Science said it found more than 20 “suspicious” papers by Lesne and identified more than 70 cases of photo manipulation in his research. Informant, Dr. Matthew Schrag, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, raised concerns about the possibility of image manipulation in several papers last year.
Carl Herrup, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute, said he was not involved in the research.
“There’s no shame in being wrong in science,” said Herrup, who works at the school’s Alzheimer’s Research Center. “Much of the best science has been done by people getting it wrong, first if they are wrong, and then to prove why they were wrong. What is absolutely toxic to science is fraud.”
For decades, the leading theory held that amyloid beta protein formed the sticky plaques in the brain that were the main cause of Alzheimer’s.
A 2006 study in the journal Nature identified a type of protein — Aβ*56, or “amyloid beta star 56” — as the cause of memory loss in rats.
Donna Wilcock, assistant dean of biomedicine at the University of Kentucky, said the paper “made a big splash at the time.”
But according to Science magazine, the images from that paper and from other studies by Lesne on Aβ*56 have found evidence that the doctor was able to amplify the protein’s role in the progression to Alzheimer’s disease, according to experts like Wilcock, who reviewed the images for Science.
Other researchers have expressed concern that Lesné’s results cannot be replicated, which is a key part of the scientific process, confirming the validity of some findings.
“In my work, [Aβ*56] There was no type we had seen before,” said Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, professor of neurology at the New York University Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
Wisniewski, who was not involved in the investigation, said Monday he reviewed the photos and saw “evidence of what appeared to be copy and paste” to create the composite image.
Wilcock also said he noticed small areas of the images that appeared to be “selectively enhanced.”
Dr. Karen Ash, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Minnesota who co-authored the 2006 paper, said she wanted to retract the study entirely, saying it lacked credibility, but she also insisted that retraction “will happen.” Do not question the amyloid-beta hypothesis.’
“After working for decades to understand the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and to find better ways to treat patients, it is heartbreaking to know that a colleague could mislead me and the scientific community by doctoring pictures,” he said. in an email message.
Kat Dodge, spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota Medical School, said the institution is aware of questions surrounding the research published by Lesne and Ash.
“The university follows its processes for reviewing any allegations raised,” he said in a statement to NBC News on Monday.
On July 14, Nature issued a note announcing that it was investigating concerns about the 2006 paper and that it would “come back with an editorial response as soon as possible.”
More than $1 billion in government funding through the National Institutes of Health has been directed toward research into amyloid-related Alzheimer’s. While the investigation suggests that Aβ*56 research should be opened up to new scrutiny, experts say the entire theory cannot be ruled out.
“Furthermore, other groups should try to reproduce this work in other experimental models,” Wisniewski said.
Herrup said it wasn’t just Lesnie’s work that influenced the direction of Alzheimer’s research over the past two decades.
“There are many other forces driving the conceptualization of disease,” he said.
But such incidents can be devastating to scientists and the wider research community, experts say.
“It really damages public confidence in the scientific process,” Wilcock said. – As a scientist, this is what worries and saddens me the most.