25 July 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 617
The journal Science has retracted a controversial paper on the genetics of extreme longevity by scientists at Boston University. The paper, released online last year, was retracted before publication in print following a formal 'expression of concern' regarding fundamental technical flaws.
The genome wide association study (GWAS), led by biostatistician Professor Paola Sebastiani, analysed the genomes of over 1000 centenarians to determine whether there was a genetic component to long life. DNA sequence analysis was conducted to identify genetic markers called SNPs. The authors claimed to identify 150 SNPs with the potential to determine an individual’s likelihood of living to 100 years or more.
An advanced online publication of the study led to significant criticism of the findings from the scientific community. This culminated in Professor Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, publishing a formal 'expression of concern' in November 2010. This critique highlighted numerous technical flaws, including the differential treatment of control and centenarian cohorts used in the study and quality control issues resulting in false positives.
In response to mounting concern, the authors of the study reanalysed the data with the help of an independent, external laboratory. A corrected manuscript was submitted in December 2010 and was once again subject to peer review. However the new submission fell short of the journal's GWAS requirements. Consequently the authors agreed to a retraction, though still stood by their main findings.
'We feel the main scientific findings remain supported by the available data…However, the specific details of the new analysis change substantially from those originally published online to the point of becoming a new report. Therefore, we retract the original manuscript and will pursue alternative publication of the new findings', stated the authors of the study.
The editors at Science released an accompanying statement to squash any potential implications of fraudulent activity. 'Science emphasises that there was no misconduct by [Professor] Sebastiani and colleagues. The researchers worked exhaustively to correct the errors in the original paper and we regret that the outcome of the extensive revision and re-review process was not more favorable'.
The current revelations have spurred a debate over the effectiveness of the peer review process, which did not pick up on the flaws of the paper during the first submission. In defence of the process Professor Alberts said: 'I think everybody recognises that the review process is far from perfect. By and large it works, but it doesn't work every single time'.
The retraction notice was published this week in Science.