Chocolate health: advice by Thomas Lüscher and peer review by Jonas Malmstedt

Chocolate health: advice by Thomas Lüscher and peer review by Jonas Malmstedt

Christmas season is the time to eat lots of chocolate. And as science teaches us, your confectionery is actually the superfood which will make you healthy, slim and clever. Good for you, good for the chocolate industry which often generously sponsors such scientists.

In May 2016, I brought a story about chocolate health research and how it is funded by food industry giants Mars and Nestle. The main protagonist was Thomas Lüscher, cardiology professor at the University of Zürich and head of the heart centre at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland. Lüscher postulated that eating dark chocolate daily is beneficial for heart insufficiency patients and may prevent heart attacks, he now offers some additional advice. Now his peer, the Swedish vascular surgeon Jonas Malmstedt, provides his analysis of Lüscher’s publications below. Another study which Malmstedt unpicks, is an opus from the Luxembourg Institute of Health (Alkerwi et al, 2016), which declared that eating chocolate makes you younger and healthier, and prevents diabetes on top. Continue reading “Chocolate health: advice by Thomas Lüscher and peer review by Jonas Malmstedt”

5 retractions and a sack for Pfizer lead cancer researcher Min-Jean Yin

Five months ago, I reported about data integrity concerns in 6 publications authored by Min-Jean Yin, who had been working at the pharma giant Pfizer in La Jolla, California, as Senior Principal Scientist since 2003. One paper, where she contributed as a collaborator (Lamoureux et al, European Urology, 2014), has been corrected already in March 2016. Five other cancer research papers, on the efficiency of Pfizer’s own pharmacological enzyme inhibitors, will now be retracted, after an investigation performed by Pfizer confirmed the suspicions of data manipulation, originally raised on PubPeer. These five papers stemmed directly from the Pfizer lab which Yin used to be in charge of. Used to be – because according to her recently updated LinkedIn profile, Yin doesn’t work there anymore. Since September 2016, she joined a rather unremarkable Californian biotech start-up Diagnologix LLC in San Diego, as “General Manager”. With such a career (and surely also salary) setback, it is safe to assume Yin did not leave Pfizer after 13 years of service entirely voluntarily. Continue reading “5 retractions and a sack for Pfizer lead cancer researcher Min-Jean Yin”

Chocolate is good for your funding

Chocolate is good for your funding

Chocolate is good for your health, scientists keep saying. This may sound counter-intuitive; given that chocolate is an extremely calorie-rich confectionery, which mostly contains industrially refined cocoa fat and huge quantities of added sugar, a substance finally about to be recognised as the prime cause for the obesity epidemics.

A recent clinical study from the Luxembourg Institute of Health, published in the British Journal of Nutrition (Alkerwi et al, 2016), discovered that “chocolate consumers (81·8 %) were more likely to be younger, physically active, affluent people with higher education levels and fewer chronic co-morbidities”. The authors used data from the nationwide Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg (ORISCAV-LUX) survey to determine that “chocolate consumption may improve liver enzymes and protect against insulin resistance, a well-established risk factor for cardiometabolic disorders”. Basically, this paper advices hyperglycaemic and diabetic patients to eat sugar-rich confectionery, which may appear somewhat irresponsible or even dangerous. These alleged chocolate benefits on diabetes prevention present a new turn in a long history of bold claims about the medicinal magic inside the sweets wrapper. Moreover, the lead author Ala’a Alkerwi also determined that chocolate improves cognitive capacities (Crichton et al 2016).

A fresh editorial in the BMJ journal Heart simply asked: “Is life longer with a box of chocolates?”. The authors Donaldson et al present “the health benefits of eating chocolate” as a scientific fact, which only needs physiological and molecular elucidation. Clinical studies have allegedly proven that regular consumption of chocolate reduces risk of heart attack and heart failure. The authors, led by Phyo Kyaw Myint, Chair for Medicine of Old Age at University of Aberdeen, decree that “future studies will need to narrow down exactly how chocolate exerts its beneficial effects”.

There were however quite a lot of chocolate studies done for more than a decade, funded with millions from the public, but also from the chocolate industry. Reliable reports of people cured of any cardiovascular diseases by eating chocolate do not exist. Even the health benefits of the purportedly medicinal raw cocoa ingredients of the flavanol compound family are far from being conclusively proven. Continue reading “Chocolate is good for your funding”

Image integrity concerns in papers from a Pfizer lab

Image manipulations are unfortunately a rather widespread practice in biomedical literature, where a large part of research data in figures consists of microscopy or gel images. Some of the most commonly detected issues in this regard are image duplications. These can range from possible negligence like duplicated western blot images, to deliberate data fabrication, evidenced by duplications of select image fragments such as gel bands. Sometimes, it is difficult to believe in the accidental nature of duplications: I reported of a case where one single western blot put an appearance whole twelve times in several publications by the Brazilian diabetes researcher Mario Saad and his colleagues. Some of his papers have been retracted by now.

Elisabeth Bik is not only a competent microbiologist at Stanford University and public-outreach-blogger, she is also a human image fabrication detector. Even the most cleverly spliced band duplications are unlikely to be overlooked by Bik, who by now screened over 20,000 papers from 40 different journals for duplications and other image irregularities. For her project, Dutch-born microbiologist teamed up with colleagues and known research integrity activists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang (who previously established misconduct as lead cause of retractions and demanded a reform of the Nobel Prize).  The trio presented the results of Bik’s analysis in a bioarxiv-preprint titled “The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications”, where they calculated that

3.8% of published papers contained problematic figures, with at least half exhibiting features suggestive of deliberate manipulation”.

Continue reading “Image integrity concerns in papers from a Pfizer lab”

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

Many scientists have been receiving unsolicited emails from the Swiss publisher Frontiers, with invitations to submit papers or become peer review “editor” with this Open Access (OA) publisher. In fact, the Holtzbrick-owned Frontiers are occasionally criticized for these activities, which were compared to spamming. These “spam” emails however are not written by robots, but by actual human beings, usually interns. Many of them do not seem very happy about their jobs with Frontiers, as one can read at the employer-evaluation portal Glassdoor. Most of the criticism is directed against middle management, who, as I have previously shown, sometimes nonchalantly manage academic topics way outside of their professional competence.

Now, you can learn what goes on inside the Frontiers “spam” factory from a first-hand source.  I was approached by a reader of my website, who turned out to be a former full-time employee at Frontiers. This person told me that the Frontiers interns (who are recruited for a 6 month period, as advertised here) were expected to write 200 emails a day, canvassing academics to submit papers to this for-profit OA publisher:

This threshold was recommended to all interns by the journal managers based on one “exemplary” staff employee, who could actually send these many emails. The messages included canned follow-up responses to potential authors clarifying what Frontiers is [see Q&A list below, -LS], a similar correspondence with editors, and reminders about the papers undergoing peer-review. Since we sent these emails from shared journal email accounts, everyone could see their quality. It was clear to me that the quantity over quality was an approach applied there. The journal managers asked us to use only template responses, word for word. It was more acting like a robot, without support from permanent staff members”.

Continue reading “Fear and Loathing at Frontiers”

Stem cell cures for everything, Made in Germany by TICEBA

Stem cell cures for everything, Made in Germany by TICEBA

The Heidelberg-based company TICEBA (abbreviated from Tissue & Cell Banking) is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill cell bank. This German company, scientifically advised by the Harvard professor Markus Frank, claims that our skin contains pluripotent stem cells, which are capable of curing all kinds of diseases. This concept is utterly unsupported by scientific literature, and is widely rejected by stem cell scientists. Nevertheless, there is internet evidence that the company’s founder, Christoph Ganss is already treating patients with these cells, in East Asia and even in EU and in Germany. According to certain (sometimes already removed) internet information, patients are being offered autologous “stem cell” injections not only for beauty treatments, but also as cures for type II diabetes, cardiovascular problems, hereditary degenerative eye diseases, and possibly even cancer.

Stem Cell for Sale

A small price to pay for youth and health

My investigation started with an advertisement in a Lufthansa in-flight magazine, which I was browsing during my return flight from a family visit in Riga in August 2015. The Heidelberg-based company TICEBA advertised to inclined customers on page 41 under the headline “You will age. Your cells won’t” some very exciting service:

“We like a tiny sample of your skin. Separate the stem cells. Store your stem cells in liquid nitrogen. Forever. Then, one day, when old age or illness overtakes you, we re-programme them. Introduce them back into your body. Regenerate you using your younger, stronger, healthier self. It’s not science fiction. Just science”.

Continue reading “Stem cell cures for everything, Made in Germany by TICEBA”

Do nanoparticles deliver? Merck’s Smart Flares and other controversies

Do nanoparticles deliver? Merck’s Smart Flares and other controversies

A large body of scientific nanotechnology literature is dedicated to the biomedical aspect of nanoparticle delivery into cells and tissues. The functionalization of the nanoparticle surface is designed to insure their specificity at targeting only a certain type of cells, such as cancers cells. Other technological approaches aim at the cargo design, in order to ensure the targeted release of various biologically active agents: small pharmacological substances, peptides or entire enzymes, or nucleotides such as regulatory small RNAs or even genes. There is however a main limitation to this approach: though cells do readily take up nanoparticles through specific membrane-bound receptor interaction (endocytosis) or randomly (pinocytosis), these nanoparticles hardly ever truly reach the inside of the cell, namely its nucleocytoplasmic space. Solid nanoparticles are namely continuously surrounded by the very same membrane barrier they first interacted with when entering the cell. These outer-cell membrane compartments mature into endosomal and then lysosomal vesicles, where their cargo is subjected to low pH and enzymatic digestion. The nanoparticles, though seemingly inside the cell, remain actually outside. How so? Continue reading “Do nanoparticles deliver? Merck’s Smart Flares and other controversies”