BU researchers retract genetic study of longevity

by jeeg 28. July 2011 23:57

Boston University researchers today retracted a controversial, high-profile paper that claimed to identify a genetic signature for extreme longevity, after a new analysis showed some of their original data were incorrect.

The paper, originally published online by the journal Science last July, analyzed the genes of centenarians and found genetic markers that appeared to be unusually strong predictors of whether a person was likely to live a very long life. But outside researchers raised serious questions about the methods used in the study, problems first reported by Newsweek last year. A statement from Science today said that there was no misconduct by the researchers but that once technical and quality control problems had been addressed, the resubmitted data would not merit publication in the journal.

“Although the authors remain confident about their findings, Science has concluded on the basis of peer-review that a paper built on the corrected data would not meet the journal’s standards for genome-wide association studies,” the statement said. “The researchers worked exhaustively to correct the errors in the original paper and we regret the outcome of the exhaustive revision and re-review process was not more favorable.”

The BU scientists who led the retracted work, Dr. Thomas Perls and Paola Sebastiani, referred questions to a spokeswoman, who sent a statement indicating that they planned to publish the corrected data in a different journal.

“We discovered that technical errors and an inadequate quality control protocol had introduced errors in our results,” Perls and Sebastiani said in the statement. “We engaged an outside academic laboratory to independently assess the quality of the data and remove ambiguous data. ... Because some details of the new analysis do change, however, we are voluntarily retracting the original manuscript and are pursuing alternative publication of the corrected results.”

The retracted paper is the latest example of a striking finding that unravels as harsh, public critiques are leveled after a study is published in a major journal -- and has already been vetted by the peer review process, in which outside scientists are supposed to ensure that the evidence presented support a paper’s findings and that it is worthy of publication.

“There was a pretty broad consensus among people who do these genome-wide association studies all the time, that the [problems in the] original version of this paper should have been caught in peer review,” said Jeffrey Barrett, group leader of statistical genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a genomic research center in the United Kingdom. “It is a teaching moment -- I use this longevity paper in lectures, showing if you drill down to some of the supplementary material and some of the data that isn’t captured in the headline, if you look carefully -- you can smell something isn’t right here.”

Last year, a Science paper that reported the discovery of bacteria that incorporated arsenic into their DNA generated considerable public controversy and skepticism among scientists, much of it aired online. Last month, Science published eight critiques of that research and a response from the original scientists, though the paper has not been retracted or corrected.

Earlier this year, Science issued an “Editorial Expression of Concern” discrediting a 2009 paper that demonstrated a link between xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus (XMRV) and chronic fatigue syndrome. The editorial pointed out that at least 10 studies have failed to find a link and that new evidence suggested laboratory contamination had erroneously led to the result.

A study published in the BMJ last year found that researchers rarely respond to criticism of their work. That study found that of 350 papers published between Oct. 2005 and Sept. 2007 in the BMJ, nearly a third had received substantive critiques publicly posted in electronic letters to the editor, but only in slightly less than half of those cases did the researchers respond.

The problems in the BU experiment centered on the researchers’ use of different types of genome scanning technologies -- a technical inconsistency that could lead to false positives. Last fall, Science issued an unusual “editorial expression of concern,” notifying the scientific community that additional quality-control measures were being taken to remove biases and artifacts from their data.

Asked what independent laboratory helped analyze the data, Sebastiani said in an e-mail she could not say anything beyond her written statement.

In its statement, Science said that of about 800 articles published each year, about 3 to 5 are retracted.

“Science takes all such cases extremely seriously, and strives to amend the scientific literature as promptly as possible,” the statement said.

Carolyn Johnson, Boston Globe


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