According to scientists at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and giant biotechnology firm Amgen, almost 90 percent of early stage cancer research geared toward finding improved treatments is wrong.
The allegations appear in the prestigious journal Nature. Surgical oncologist Lee M. Ellis of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and C. Glenn Begley, the former head of cancer research at Amgen, describe the efforts of scientists at Amgen (based in Thousand Oaks, California) to replicate the results of 53 landmark research papers on cancer which had been cited by others as significant progress. All of the papers were “pre-clinical,” meaning they were studies involving cells in petri dishes or rodents. Of the conclusions drawn by these research papers, the scientists were able to replicate 11 percent. For scientific purposes, the inability to replicate a study reliably often indicates that the study is wrong.
Most of the so-called “landmark” papers are about gene mutations or other modifications to cancer cells that could be the basis for new cancer treatments. When a company like Amgen is deciding how to spend their research dollars for human testing of potential cancer treatments, they rely heavily on research like this. A German company, Bayer Healthcare, had similar findings last year when they could not replicate 25 percent of studies.
Begley and Ellis are not overly concerned about fraud in the case of the questionable studies. They write, “These investigators were all competent, well-meaning scientists who truly wanted to make advances in cancer research.”
The problem is that scientists often choose only the best results to include in their research, ignoring negative findings that might raise concern. There are many people involved in the research process, not just scientists, and if one or more of them choose to ignore a particular finding or not include it in the research, it can skew the results.
According to Begley and Ellis, “To obtain funding, a job, promotion or tenure, researchers need a strong publication record…Journal editors, reviewers, and grant review committees [and I might add journalists—R.B.] often look for a scientific finding that is simple, clear and complete—a ‘perfect’ story. It is therefore tempting for investigators to submit suspected data sets for publication, or even to massage data.”
The end result is that the research findings are wrong far too often. Begley and Ellis demand a change in the culture of cancer research, wanting researchers to show more willingness to admit to imperfections and to stop the practice of not publishing negative results. They say, “We in the field…must remain focused on the purpose of cancer research: to improve the lives of patients.”