Super sleuth questions cancer research papers

25 January 2017

Questionable research concerning a gene linked to cancer could be misleading researchers working on treatments, says cancer expert Professor Jennifer Byrne. 

Professor Jenifer Byrne

Professor Byrne - says questionable studies may be misleading cancer researchers 

The gene is active in breast cancer and acute lymphoblastic leukemia but had little recent academic attention until five research papers suddenly appeared in the space of a year.

The papers in question concern the gene TPD52L2 that Professor Byrne cloned 20 years ago.

Professor Byrne from the University of Sydney, heads the Children’s Cancer Research Unit at the Kids Research Institute, and first raised her concerns with the four journals that published the research.

It’s a problem of garbage in, garbage out.
Professor Jennifer Byrne, University of Sydney

She expressed two main concerns: the many striking similarities between the five papers, and the fact that most papers incorrectly used DNA constructs targeting TPD52L2 or one other gene.

Not satisfied with most responses, she then published her findings and concerns in Scientometrics with Dr Cyril Labbé, an expert who uses textual analysis to detect scientific fraud.

“At best, (these papers are) a distraction from the real business of trying to cure cancer, but the real danger is that other researchers base future work on this,” she said today.

The five papers contain very similar figures yet numerous errors and contradictions, suggesting researchers didn’t test the gene in question and may have engaged in plagiarism, Professor Byrne said.

When Byrne and Labbe analyzed the papers’ text they found had more than 50 per cent of their words in common.

Also, one of several nonsensical practices within in the papers was to use an identical gene sequence to inactivate TPD52L2 and also as a control, which should achieve nothing. Another was the use of a sequence as a control when in fact it should target another gene.

The papers claim to disclose important results in cancer research but if they are false, their results could be “polluting the pipeline” that leads from basic research to its translation into treatment,” Professor Byrne said.

“It’s a problem of garbage in, garbage out,” she added.

Some of the suspect papers had already been cited, and at least 30 papers have now wrongly used the same TPD52L2 construct as a negative control.

Two of the journals originally contacted by Professor Byrne have now retracted the papers.

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