Monday, October 28, 2013

Flawed Research, Cursory Peer Review, Perverse Incentives

“Billions of dollars worth of wrong” is how the situation in life science research is described in the Los Angeles Times this week.

Strong words, but supported by findings from Amgen and Bayer HealthCare that may be well known in relatively tiny scientific circles but rarely heard in an outlet such as the Times. It is the largest circulation paper in California and says it reaches 8.6 million adults weekly in Los Angeles via print and the Internet -- not to mention its national pull.

The column on “verifiable facts” and science was written by Pulitzer Prize winner and author Michael Hiltzik.

Among other things, he cited a study by Amgen of Thousand Oaks, Ca., which examined 53 “landmark papers” in cancer research and blood biology. Only five could be proved valid, a shocking result, according to Amgen. Similar results were turned up by Bayer in Germany.

Hiltzik continued,
"'The thing that should scare people is that so many of these important published studies turn out to be wrong when they're investigated further,' says Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Economist recently estimated spending on biomedical R&D in industrialized countries at $59 billion a year. That's how much could be at risk from faulty fundamental research.

"Eisen says the more important flaw in the publication model is that the drive to land a paper in a top journal — Nature and Science lead the list — encourages researchers to hype their results, especially in the life sciences. Peer review, in which a paper is checked out by eminent scientists before publication, isn't a safeguard. Eisen says the unpaid reviewers seldom have the time or inclination to examine a study enough to unearth errors or flaws.

"'The journals want the papers that make the sexiest claims,' he says. 'And scientists believe that the way you succeed is having splashy papers in Science or Nature — it's not bad for them if a paper turns out to be wrong, if it's gotten a lot of attention.'"
Hiltzik goes on to discuss the flawed nature of peer review and “perverse incentives” in scientific research along with the new PubMed Commons project at the NIH, which Hiltzik said is aimed at substituting “continuing scrutiny” for “ a cursory, one-time peer review.”

Hiltzik's main piece appeared on the Web yesterday. Today he had a follow-up dealing with the late Richard Feynman's “cargo cult science,” the term physicist used for published research that did not prove valid.

Hiltzik's bottom line?
"The demand for sexy results, combined with indifferent follow-up, means that billions of dollars in worldwide resources devoted to finding and developing remedies for the diseases that afflict us all is being thrown down a rathole. NIH and the rest of the scientific community are just now waking up to the realization that science has lost its way, and it may take years to get back on the right path."
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  1. Anonymous9:03 PM

    Mike Eisen is taking credit for "discovering" the flaws in drug development research, which makes him just a slightly different kind of self-serving egoist from the scientists he criticizes. This is not news, nor is it Mike's revelation. The studies being cited by Amgen are indeed overhyped, describing drug breakthroughs based on animal studies, which turn out to be ineffective in humans. Animal models are known to be flawed, but they are the best models of human disease that have been available...until now. Human pluripotent stem cells are beginning to be used for safety and efficacy studies, and although it's too early to make a blanket statement, it seems likely that the use of these cells will improve the predicability of drug actions in humans. Science is changing because of investment in human stem cell research.

  2. That is just completely false. I was asked to comment on a series of published studies that showed that a large number of published research findings are false. I made absolutely no claim (nor did the article suggest) that I had "discovered" this. I was merely commenting on why I think this is the case.