Paper Retraction Provides Lesson on Good Science

By Ruth Kava — Jan 06, 2017
Recently an important paper — one which had the potential to revolutionize the treatment of type 1 diabetes — was retracted because its results could not be replicated. Far from being a negative incident, this is the way that science should be done.
Checking Blood Sugar

Type 1 diabetes – the kind that involves loss of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells — requires that insulin be injected daily, or several times daily. The holy grail for researchers has been finding some means of either stopping that loss or increasing the number of functioning beta cells. In 2013 researchers from Harvard University published a paper suggesting that a new hormone that they called Betatrophin might do the trick, since it controls beta cell proliferation, and seemed to increase the number of beta cells, at least in mice.

Unfortunately, other laboratories were unable to replicate this work, nor did the Harvard group when they tried to repeat the experiment. Thus, they have retracted their paper, saying in part:

 "We have subsequently repeated a series of blinded experiments with the Kushner lab and have now determined conclusively that our conclusion that Angptl-8/betatrophin causes specific β-cell replication is wrong and cannot be supported (PLoS One, 2016, 11, e0159276). Therefore, the most appropriate course of action is to retract the paper. We regret and apologize for this mistake."

So what does this mean regarding scientific procedures? Let's be clear; no one is saying that there was any malfeasance whatsoever on the part of the Harvard scientists. Unlike some previous cases in which researchers were found to have manipulated, fabricated or stolen data, in this case, none of these situations apply. Indeed, Dr. Mark A. Atkinson, director of the Univesity of Florida Diabetes Institute was quoted:

"Actually, I see this as an event that should, in the end, be extremely beneficial for medical research and type 1 diabetes in particular. Recently, questions have abounded in the medical literature regarding reproducibility of data and its effects on medical advances. I believe Dr Melton's [Dr. Melton was the lead author on the beta cell investigation] experience, while on the surface clearly disappointing, serves as an important model for every researcher seeking to find the truth."

Dr. Atkinson also said that Dr. Melton is  "renowned world-class cell biologist" whose prior work had been replicated.

Clearly, as we've said many times before, replication is the basis of substantiating any scientific discovery, be it a lab experiment on mice or an epidemiological study of human diet. And when replication does not occur, it is appropriate and necessary for the scientific community to be apprised of that fact to avoid any future misdirected research efforts.

In summary, this is the way that science should be done.