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.