My Aunt Florence, my mother's older sister, died of Alzheimer's disease.
Her children, especially my cousin Linda, took care of her as she slowly declined during the last fifteen years of her life. She finally died in 2008 at the age of ninety, and by that time there was little left of her but a physical shell. She was unresponsive, the higher parts of her brain destroyed by the agonizing progression of this horrible illness. She went from being a bright, inquisitive, vital woman, an avid reader who did crossword puzzles in ink and could beat the hell out of me in Scrabble, to being... gone.
During this ordeal I lived fifteen hundred miles away, so I wasn't confronted every day by the terrible reality of what Alzheimer's does, both to the people suffering it and to their families. Even so, it was my aunt's face I kept picturing while I was reading an article in Neoscope sent to me by a friend -- all the while getting angrier and angrier.
If you've kept up at all with the research on Alzheimer's you probably are familiar with the words beta amyloid. It's a short-chain protein, whose function is unknown, which allegedly is directly toxic to nerve cells (and can cause other proteins to misfold, suggesting an etiology similar to Creutzfeld-Jakob syndrome, better known as "mad cow disease"). A great deal of money and time has been spent investigating the role of beta amyloid in Alzheimer's, and in developing drugs that interfere with its production -- significantly, not a single one of which has been shown to slow down the progression of the disease, much less reverse it.
It turns out this is no coincidence. There is good evidence that the often-cited papers on the topic by Sylvain Lesné -- who wrote convincingly that a specific beta amyloid species, Aß*56, was the culprit in the devastating destruction you see in Alzheimer's sufferers -- were based on faked data.
Not even well-faked, either. The images Lesné included from "Western blot" experiments, a commonly-used separation technique used to detect specific proteins in mixtures, were cut-and-pasted, something that can be seen not only in faint cut lines in the images but in the fact that the bands in the photographs have clearly been duplicated and moved (i.e., if you look at the edges of the bands, several of them have identically-shaped edges -- something that would be next to impossible in an actual Western blot).
It's a devastating finding. About how the hell fraud like this got past peer review, biochemist Derek Lowe writes in Science:
The Lesné stuff should have been caught at the publication stage, but you can say that about every faked paper and every jiggered Western blot. When I review a paper, I freely admit that I am generally not thinking “What if all of this is based on lies and fakery?” It’s not the way that we tend to approach scientific manuscripts. Rather, you ask whether the hypothesis is a sound one and if it was tested in a useful way: were the procedures used sufficient to trust the results and were these results good enough to draw conclusions that can in turn be built upon by further research? Are there other experiments that would make things stronger? Other explanations that the authors didn’t consider and should address? Are there any parts where the story doesn’t hang together? If so, how would these best be fixed?Lesné's apparently fraudulent research doesn't invalidate the whole beta amyloid hypothesis; other, independent studies support the toxic effects of beta amyloid on nerve cells, and have shown there's beta amyloid present in damaged cells. But Lesné's contention that Aß*56 was causative of Alzheimer's was apparently a blind alley -- and the presence of the protein in the neurons of Alzheimer's sufferers could as well be a result of the disease as a cause.
There is a good-faith assumption behind all these questions: you are starting by accepting the results as shown. But if someone comes in with data that have in fact been outright faked, and what’s more, faked in such a way as to answer or forestall just those sorts of reviewing tasks, there’s a good chance that these things will go through, unfortunately.