Fraud, Errors and Misconceptions
in Medical Research
Three years after being charged for fraud, misusing state funds
and violating bioethics laws, disgraced South Korean stem cell
researcher Hwang Woo-suk was convicted today on some but not all
The court determined he had partially fabricated the research
results, according to media
reports, but since he has repented the court handed down a
2-year suspended sentence.
Hwang's team in 2004 claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem
cells. But the scientist fabricated crucial data, and even researchers
working on the project didn't know the results had been faked.
While Hwang's case has become one of the most notorious examples
of breakthroughs gone bad, even well-done and above-board health
and medical studies have a history of being faulty, in part because
the scientific process allows for publication of data that may
appear to reveal a breakthrough, even though subsequent research
might show just the opposite.
A study in 2005, published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association, found that one-third of all medical studies turn
out to be wrong.
Even common existing treatments can be found useless years after
they're widely accepted by the medical profession and the public.
In 2007, scientists showed that honey works better than cough
medicines in soothing children's coughs.
Another study this year revealed that conflicts of interest often
medical studies which further strengthens the evidence on
studies lead to a poor track record in preventing disease.
The research, detailed in the June 15 issue of the journal Cancer,
found that 29 percent of cancer research published in high-profile
journals had disclosed a conflict of interest. Those conflicts,
moreover, seem to affect how studies were conducted. Research
that had industry funding, for example, focused on treatment 62
percent of the time, while studies not funded by industry focused
on treatment only 36 percent of the time.
Even good studies can be mucked up by the media, which tend to
latch on to the juiciest stuff and squeeze all they can out of
it, not always reporting the follow-up study in which the hoopla
dries up. The result: distortion,
albeit often unintentional.
Many studies produce findings that are incremental or relatively
insignificant, yet the publicity machines at institutions are
eager to promote their researchers' work, and journalists don't
always do their jobs fully to dig into the context that reveals
a study's true significance, or lack thereof.
For example, a review in 2006 found that much of what you read
regarding health research lacks important context. Specifically,
the media often omit basic facts in stories they report from professional
medical conferences, the study concluded. That's partly because
research revealed at conferences often has not been published
in peer-reviewed journals, where such context is required and
where outlandish claims are often quashed.
Then again, Hwang's supposed breakthrough in 2005 was published
in Science, one of the most respected journals around.
Reference Sources 138
November 2, 2009