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We thought we had found the main hypothesis to combat Alzheimer’s. Now a scandal threatens to knock her down

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What if one of the leading contemporary Alzheimer’s investigations turned out to be a fraud? What if hundreds of articles published over the last 15 years had to be removed for having “shockingly blatant” problems? That is what the magazine Science denounced a few days ago and, as usual, it has caused an earthquake in the world of biomedical research.

What happened? In August 2021, a lawyer contacted Matthew Schrag, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, because he was studying certain suspicions about the documents that a pharmaceutical company, Cassava Sciences, had used to request approval of an Alzheimer’s drug. Sure enough, Schrag came across a huge catalog of apparently fraudulent images. Thus began a chain reaction that not only set off all the alarms in the world of research, but has ended up affecting one of the key articles in modern studies on the disease

a house of cards. The study, published in 2006 in Nature, was considered “irrefutable proof” that Aβ plaques, known as plaques, in brain tissue are the main cause of the disease. We are talking about the main current working hypothesis about Alzheimer’s and, if Schrag was right, it would be an earthquake in the research area.

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The conditional is important because Schrag’s work focuses, fundamentally, on pointing out the apparent problems of the images of dozens of studies considered classics in the field. However, he is not a ‘judge’, nor is he immersed in the evaluation editorial processes: in the Science article he came to recognize that there could be explanations for some of these problems and he does not attempt to draw “final conclusions”, although the truth is that is “the data should speak for itself”.

And so they have: the Science investigation, drawing on independent researchers, seems to confirm that there are hundreds of images in question (some “shockingly blatant”). It is still early to draw conclusions (because, at the moment, there are dozens of journals reviewing evidence, asking for explanations and deciding whether to retract articles); however, ‘Nature’ has already begun to review some works and everything points to a new “replication crisis” approaching.

What implications does it have? Beyond the economic waste and professional problems, the most obvious would be lost time. Since 2006, hundreds of people have used these experiments as a starting point for their own experiments, their lines of research and the development of new drugs. If all this evidence collapses like a house of cards, we will have to start from scratch in many areas.

a new science. The last decade has been almost a century for contemporary science. The replication crises that affected the psychology and biology of cancer turned out to be much deeper and more widespread than previously believed and, today, there is hardly any scientific field that has not been affected in one way or another. way for these problems. What of these weeks is an earthquake in biomedical research, yes; but above all, it is a reminder that we need better ways to organize contemporary science and undo perverse incentives: our lives (and health) depend on it.

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Image | National Cancer Institute

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