When Scientists Go Bad, Part I

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Ethics isn’t just for politics. (Copyright 2014. S. Brown)

     Everyone loves a juicy story.  And it’s even more delicious when that story involves a scandal cropping up where you’d least expect it. That might explain why we’re so entertained by stories of scientists gone bad (see e.g., our two most popular posts, about ‘engineers gone bad’).

     I had an (almost) front row seat for one such very juicy scandal in the 1990’s, which involved one arrogant SOB and some mouse brains that actually turned out to be people brains. More on that in a bit.

     Now, before I go on, I should explain that I’ll be recounting things as I can best recall them. Strangely, it seems almost as if the Internet has been scrubbed of any info on this particular scandal- which, to me, is shocking and seems somehow suspect. Although the incident happened before the Internet was a common thing, it still seems like there should be some information out there in the ether about it. But I digress…

     I won’t name any names or specific places, but I will say that this particular professor/department head’s unwinding occurred in a teaching hospital/university located in northern New York State in a city situated on the southern end of a very, very large lake, on the north end of which lies a whole other country.  There aren’t any innocents to protect (nonetheless, I don’t want to receive any nasty-grams), but let’s just call the professor “Dr. Rupert” for the time being (a very fictitious name, so don’t give funny looks to any real Dr. Ruperts out there) .

    As the scandal was just unfolding, were busy packing up our lab for a cross-country move to another university.  Our lab was located on the same floor as Dr. Rupert’s office and he had been our department head for many years. I had never worked directly with Dr. Rupert, but people in my lab group had- one having been his lab tech for many years and another having been his graduate student. By then, stories had already been circulating about Dr. Rupert’s (alleged) arrogance, hot temper and weird paranoia. One former grad student claimed that Dr. Rupert was so paranoid that the had padlocked the lab refrigerator (complete with an anchor chain through the handle). Apparently, Dr. Rupert did this because he was sure someone was putting something in the antibodies stored in the frig to sabotage his experiments.

     Most of the researchers in our department, including Dr. Rupert, were working on various aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. Clinicians were all too familiar with the disease’s devastating effects (destruction of the patient’s memory), but the disease’s causes remained elusive.  At the time, there was no animal model for Alzheimer’s disease and that was a huge impediment to studying the mechanisms of the disease. Developing  an animal model for Alzheimer’s was the neurological holy grail, and anyone who succeeded in doing that was going to be a rock star.

     So, in the early 1990’s, when a researcher claimed to have made a major breakthrough on that front, it created a huge buzz. That researcher was Dr. Rupert and his work appeared as the cover story in a major peer-reviewed journal, complete with a sexy cover photo of Alzheimer-afflicted rodent cells. And with that, Dr. Rupert had become a scientific rock star.

     It wasn’t long, however, before Dr. Rupert’s scientific peers began asking a lot of questions about Dr. Rupert’s data.

     When scientists study the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients they find many abnormalities within the brain cells (“neurons”)  and the cell’s tree-like branches (“dendrites”). Instead of healthy branches, Alzheimer’s neurons display ‘plaques’ (abnormal clusters of protein fragments) and ‘tangles’, which are comprised of (probably) insoluble twisted and tangled protein strands. You can see some of the differences between healthy and Alzheimer’s cells here. So far, it isn’t clear whether plaques and tangles are a cause or a symptom of the disease.

    The brain cells in Dr. Rupert’s cover photos displayed the stereotypic plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s afflicted-cells. But people had started asking a lot of questions that Dr. Rupert couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. And then things got really interesting…

     Stay tuned for Part II, when the sh*t really begins to hit the fan for Dr. Rupert.