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BU researchers retract genetic study of extreme longevity

New study found some original data were not correct

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / July 22, 2011

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Boston University researchers retracted yesterday a controversial, high-profile paper that purported to identify a genetic signature for extreme longevity, after a new analysis showed some of their original data were incorrect.

The paper, originally published online last July by the journal Science, analyzed the genes of centenarians and found genetic markers that appeared to be unusually strong predictors of whether a person was likely to live a very long life.

But outside researchers raised serious questions about the methods used in the study, problems first reported last year by Newsweek. A statement from Science said yesterday that there was no misconduct by the researchers but that once technical and quality-control problems had been addressed, the resubmitted data would not merit publication in the journal.

“Although the authors remain confident about their findings, Science has concluded on the basis of peer-review that a paper built on the corrected data would not meet the journal’s standards for genome-wide association studies,’’ the statement said. “The researchers worked exhaustively to correct the errors in the original paper, and we regret the outcome of the extensive revision and re-review process was not more favorable.’’

The BU scientists who led the retracted work, Dr. Thomas Perls and Paola Sebastiani, referred questions to a spokeswoman, who sent a statement indicating that they planned to publish the corrected data in a different journal.

“We discovered that technical errors and an inadequate quality-control protocol had introduced errors in our results,’’ Perls and Sebastiani said in the statement. “We engaged an outside academic laboratory to independently assess the quality of the data and remove ambiguous data. . . . Because some details of the new analysis do change, however, we are voluntarily retracting the original manuscript and are pursuing alternative publication of the corrected results.’’

The retracted paper is the latest example of a striking finding unraveling as harsh, public critiques are leveled after a study is published in a major journal. Journals such as Science have a vetting process, called peer review, in which outside scientists are supposed to ensure that evidence presented by researchers support a paper’s findings and that it is worthy of publication.

“There was a pretty broad consensus among people who do these genome-wide association studies all the time that the [problems in the] original version of this paper should have been caught in peer review,’’ said Jeffrey Barrett, group leader of statistical genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a genomic research center in the United Kingdom.

“It is a teaching moment,’’ he said. “I use this longevity paper in lectures, showing if you drill down to some of the supplementary material and some of the data that isn’t captured in the headline, if you look carefully - you can smell something isn’t right here.’’

Last year, a Science paper that reported the discovery of bacteria that incorporated arsenic into their DNA generated considerable public controversy and skepticism among scientists, much of it aired online.

Last month, Science published eight critiques of that research and a response from the original scientists, though the paper has not been retracted or corrected.

Earlier this year, Science issued an “Editorial Expression of Concern’’ discrediting a 2009 paper that demonstrated a link between xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) and chronic fatigue syndrome. The editorial pointed out that at least 10 studies have failed to find a link and that new evidence suggested laboratory contamination had erroneously led to the result.

The problems in the BU experiment centered on the researchers’ use of different types of genome scanning technologies, a technical inconsistency that could lead to false positives. Last fall, Science issued an unusual statement notifying the scientific community that additional quality-control measures were being taken to remove biases and artifacts from their data.

Asked what independent laboratory helped analyze the data, Sebastiani said in an e-mail that she could not say anything beyond her written statement.

In its statement yesterday, Science said that of about 800 articles published each year, about three to five are retracted.

“Science takes all such cases extremely seriously, and strives to amend the scientific literature as promptly as possible,’’ the statement said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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