Behind the scenes of fraud allegations against resveratrol and curcumin researchers
Can we take at face value charges of fraud aimed at two prominent natural product researchers – especially when those products pose such a huge threat to lucrative pharmaceuticals?
Dipak Das is no wet-behind-the-ears scientific newcomer: as a professor in the Department of Surgery and Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Cincinnati (UoC), OH, USA, he can safely be labelled a ‘big shot’. Over 600 of his research papers are currently cited on PubMed, 59 of which concern the ‘red wine’ molecule, resveratrol, a molecule with an extensive range of benefits found at high concentrations in red grape skins – and it’s these papers that are causing headaches for the Professor.
Following a tip-off – anonymous, of course – in 2008, his University undertook an, “Extensive research misconduct” investigation, announcing in January 2012 that Das was guilty of 145 counts of research fraud and data falsification. As of September this year, 17 papers have been retracted by the publishing journals – with resveratrol the topic of most of the retractions. Das’ career is now in freefall.
Western blots and contrasting claims
It’s impossible, as of today, to understand the exact nature of the allegations against Das, since the full 60,000-page(!) report hasn’t yet been released by UoC and links to the 49-page summary no longer work for reasons that are unclear. However, the retractions to date have occurred due to irregularities with some of the images used in the papers: Das is accused of manipulating them to falsify data, while he claims his laboratory only made minor changes, such as increasing the contrast on Western blots, upon request from the journals.
This may, of course, be a case of a researcher fiddling the figures to get the results he wanted. But a few questions occur to us about the Das affair. Why, for example, would a tenured professor of high academic standing suddenly get a taste for research fraud after a long career, including nearly 30 years at UoC? Why did UoC notify Prof Das of the imminent release of its epic report while he was lecturing abroad, and give him only 4 days to respond to the allegations – knowing that he was recovering from a stroke? Is there anything to the numerous other irregularities mentioned by Das in a letter to UoC authorities? Do the accusations go beyond image manipulation, which is easy to allege but difficult to refute? And is there any motive for people with vested interests to rubbish the career of a high-profile researcher into a antioxidant with a long list of potential health benefits, including protection from heart attacks, that could one day cause huge damage to drug profits?
Curcumin, one of the active components in the spice turmeric, is another natural product with a list of benefits guaranteed to turn pharma executives a sickly shade of grey. And in a case with astonishing parallels to that of Prof Das’, researcher Bharat Aggarwal has been accused of manipulating images in papers concerning curcumin and resveratrol, among other topics.
It’s too early to tell whether this is, as Bill Sardi terms it, an “inquisition” – but we’ll be following both cases closely.
Call to action
Whatever the truth of these cases, don’t let it affect your personal health decisions! There is a huge amount of evidence in favour of resveratrol’s health benefits, some of which we summarised in our 2006 report to the World Health Organization; after all is said and done, Prof Das is only one of many scientists interested in resveratrol. Much the same is true of curcumin. Remember: whatever the outcome of the Das and Aggarwal cases, it will only serve to muddy the waters of research into these two amazing natural molecules, not invalidate the entire field. So if you’re already taking them – keep taking them, and enjoy the benefits! If you’re not yet taking them, check out independent research or reviews on both resveratrol and curcumin. While cancer prevention is far from the only known benefit of these two remarkable natural substances, the two examples below explain why the drug companies are so keen to take ownership of their properties
Resveratrol: read a recent review article showing how researchers are trying to wrestle resveratrol away from the nutraceutical sector and turn it into a new, safe chemotherapeutic agent against cancer.
Curcumin: another review article that shows why curcumin should be an essential phytonutrient in every adult’s diet, and should be recommended by all clinicians, especially to people with a higher than average risk of cancer.