Research Fraud: Transplant Roadblock*
S.Q. Lapius was padding about the room in his stockinged feet perusing the just arrived evening paper. “At last, at last,” he said.
“At last what?” I asked.
“At last an explanation or rebuttal or whatever from Summerlin.”
It took me about three seconds to be reminded who Summerlin was, but it came back in a flash. He was the doctor who was kicked out of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for having falsified and misrepresenting his research. One of the major roadblocks in medicine today is the immune system, which prevents the kidney of one person to be transplanted to another without the use of terrifying drugs that are often as lethal as the original medical problem. In other words, immune system of the recipient recognizes that the transplanted tissues are foreign, and sends out an array of proteins to destroy it. It is certainly true that if it weren’t for the immune response we would be racked fatally by the hordes of bacteria amongst which we live and that live amongst us. But the same immune system prevents the successful transplant of human organs from one individual to another. Summerlin thought he had found a way to overcome this problem. He believed that incubating donor tissues in a tissue culture for a period of time would overcome the resistance, and purportedly show experimentally that incubated tissues would lose their antigenicity – that is, lose their power to stimulate an antibody response by the host to the transplant. If this were true it would pave the way for successful transplantation of tissues without the use of immunosuppressive drugs. However, his work, although printed in scientific journals and reported at meetings, could not be duplicated in other laboratories. As a result, he and his work became suspect.
“Isn’t he the fellow that was given a one year leave of absence with pay provided he would see a psychiatrist?” I asked Lapius.
“The very same,” Lapius confirmed. “They really had some damning evidence. As a matter of fact, he painted some white rats with black shoe polish to demonstrate what he considered to be a successful experiment in cross transplantation.”
“Pretty hard to get out of that sort of bind,” I said. “He admitted the charge. How could he expiate himself?”
“Quite simply,” said Lapius, continuing to read. “He blamed the whole matter on his chief at Sloan-Kettering, Robert A. Good.”
“How could he do that? Good wasn’t involved in his experiments.”
“No, but Good supported him. According to Summerlin, Good was putting a lot of pressure on him to produce. He said, ‘You’ve been here six months and you’ve really not made any new observations.’ (NY Times, May 29, 1974)
“Coming from the chief of an institute I would say that that statement constitutes pressure,” I told Lapius.
“Fortunately for all science, not all researchers have been given that sort of implied ultimatum. What, after all, is six months. Consider that Jenner worked for twenty years until he confirmed for himself the usefulness of the vaccination against small-pox.”
“Sure,” I said, “he took his own sweet time and meanwhile about 20 million people probably died of small pox.”
“Certainly,” countered Lapius, “but what if he had been pushed by some royal patron, and had come out with some spurious stuff prematurely? The concept would have fallen into disrepute and we would still be dying of small pox.”
“Do you blame Good?”
“I think Good will suffer from the exposure. After all, he seemed to have been orienting his career towards winning the Nobel Prize. I think he has authored about 12 hundred papers, many which are basic importance. But then again that many scientific articles is too many for one man to have done alone, except an exceptional genius, with a large number of exceptional graduate students at his command. However, that may be, according to Summerlin, Good as the new chief at Sloan-Kettering was simply too anxious to get results. It is unfortunate.”
“Well, it certainly deals a black-eye to the research establishment.”
‘Not at all,” Lapius said, surprisingly. “Not at all, Harry. Research is self-correcting, as long as there are independent research centers that are in competition as it were, in a given field of research. If a research result can’t be duplicated something is wrong. There is no need for long hearings or judicial procedures to unfrock the fraud. All that is needed is for reputable scientists to come to the fore and show that their own experiments failed to reproduce the stated results. I feel sorry for Summerlin. He probably succumbed to the pressure and went a little dotty. He claims that he became depressed after a sleepless night on his cot in his laboratory, and a surprise breakfast of crepes and champagne brought to him by his secretary, he darkened the skin of his laboratory animals on his way to Dr. Good’s office.”
“Some secretary. What was she doing there with crepes and champagne at 5 a.m.?”
“The article didn’t say.”
“What kind of shoe-polish did he use?”
“The article doesn’t mention that either,” Lapius said, scrutinizing the print.
“Pretty poor reporting to my way of thinking. Those sound like the most interesting parts of the story.”
“But the project of the young Summerlin does bring up an interesting point,” Lapius said, ignoring my pertinent comments. “Why doesn’t the female reject the male sperm during an insemination?”
“There’s not enough time.”
“But the new fetus is in a sense half a transplant – perhaps if Summerlin had incubated the donor and recipient tissues together for a while -.”
*Between 1975 and 2006 reports of research fraud increased significantly.