Last month (October), I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at New York University (NYU) given by a fellow whistle blower, Stefan Franzen, who was hosted by another fellow whistle blower, Bart Kahr. Stefan, who hails from the North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, is a lively, intense chemistry professor with a bulldog determination to dig out the truth. He had the misfortune to become involved with colleagues who believed they were on to something really hot, and Stefan, for a while, thought so, too. The research led to support by a million dollar grant from the Keck Foundation and $700,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Energy (DOE).
The brouhaha was all about nanoparticles. So what are they? Stefan introduced them in his talk as the modern manifestation of what we used to call colloids – particles that are too small to form precipitates and too big to be dissolved. They have become a hot item in recent times because of their properties as carriers of good and bad things into small spaces in and around our bodies. They can, for example, deliver drugs to the brain, activate signaling pathways and track macromolecules. They can broadcast subcellular chemical behavior, inhibit or enhance biomolecular reactions and generally serve as supermolecular helpers, inhibitors or participants. The excitement in the Chemistry department at NCSU was all about the construction of nanoparticles that used RNA, that quintessential nucleic acid that may well have been the primordial nucleic acid, to build nanoparticles that contained palladium, a precious metal in a class with silver, gold and platinum that has many uses as a catalyst. The nanoparticles so constructed had class – they appeared in the form of tiny hexagons. And not only was RNA the builder, only specific sequences of RNA would work. How good does it get? Good enough to get the paper published in the journal Science, along with Nature, the most prestigious of prestigious scientific journals. Publishing in Science is tantamount to obtaining grants, awards, accolades, prestigious job offers. The discoverers of this phenomenon dubbed it “Evolutionary Chemistry”, a catchy sobriquet that was bound to attract venture capital.
But, no. There is Stefan Franzen who says it isn’t true. The work was sloppy, poorly described, inadequately controlled and failed to stand up to the necessary tests. Franzen told us in his talk that the particles which should have been as solid as gold did not stand the test of time and disintegrated. Chemical analysis led him and others to believe that they were mainly composed of carbon, not precious palladium. They were described as forming in aqueous solutions, but, alas, the paper neglected to mention that they had actually been formed in 50% tetrahydrofuran (THF), a widely used but noxious and highly carcinogenic industrial solvent. The work in the Science paper was that of PhD candidate, Lina Gugliotti, who, among other things, had failed to calibrate the microscope that was instrumental in identifying and analyzing the particles.
Shortly after the landmark paper was published, the key opposition players, Professors Bruce Eaton and Dan Feldstein, moved to the University of Colorado as Professors of Chemistry where they continue to pursue research on nanoparticles. On his website, Eaton describes the “new type of RNA catalysis [that] revealed that Pd (palladium) particle formation could be mediated by specific selected sequences”. Seems he is still stuck on the “discovery” or maybe it does really work but just not as told in the Science paper. Eaton is very much of a go-getter and is said in the first of 3 articles that appeared in the NewsObserver.com, to have founded 2 biotech companies and is named on 70 patents. Feldheim, on the other hand, appears to be somewhat less flamboyant.
Since the publication of the Science paper in 2004, the fur has been flying with acrimonious accusations and stubborn grandstanding. NCSU investigated the conduct of the experiments in the Science paper and filed a lukewarm report in June of 2008 that, while agreeing that the paper contained serious flaws, stated that scientific misconduct had not occurred and they urged “the Respondents to either publish new conclusive data or to publish a clarification/reexamination of their previously reported data” which, of course, has not yet been done. One member of the 5 member committee disagreed that Feldheim was not guilty of scientific misconduct. The University of Colorado, which, after all, was really hors de combat, chose to accept the judgment of NCSU and declined to conduct its own investigation.
Next in line came the National Science Foundation. Their report, if completed, has not been made public, but they summarized their findings to Congress in September, 2013 by saying “We concluded that collectively the coauthors recklessly falsified their work in the original article. We recommended that NSF require retraction of the article and three years of certifications and assurances for each author, and bar each author as an NSF reviewer, advisor, or consultant for three years.” As far as is known, these sanctions have not been implemented, the paper still stands and Franzen still fumes.
But now, let’s take a look at the stake holders in this sorry tale and what they stand to lose.
The 2 senior investigators: they stand to lose (may have lost) the respect of their colleagues and of their students, to alienate grantors, to lose face, to admit that they were wrong
The graduate student: could (perhaps should) have her degree rescinded, by being at the center of this controversy could have trouble find a job, could lose out on her future (I favor rescinding her degree – what good to the world is the worthless information therein contained? But give her a second chance. Let her return to the laboratory and work on some other project. She was not properly supervised the first time around – but then, she was a doctoral candidate – wasn’t it her responsibility to find out how to use that microscope?)
NCSU could be required to return the grant money, could lose face and competitiveness in this cutthroat scientific world, especially when it comes to attracting grant support and graduate students
NSF (also DOE) depends on Congress for its funding. Support of fantasy research could jeopardize its standing and fund-raising competitiveness in these tight times
Franzen’s colleagues and detractors may see him as beating a dead horse. And he stands to gain nothing in the material sense. But let us hope that there is an increase in respect and admiration for such a person with such unassailable integrity. Let us hope that, by his example, his students will see that honesty is the best policy and will follow his light. He spent 3 years in the Peace Corps in Africa to make the world a better place. Let us hope that he has done that for the world of science, as well.
Sources for this blog are
Wikipedia: article on nanoparticles
A series of articles by Joseph Neff that appeared on NewObserver.com in January, 2014 with a follow-up on July 17, 2014
A post on Retraction Watch of January 30, 2014 by Ivan Oransky
Letter from Representatives Paul C Brown, MD and Dan Maffei of the Subcommittee on Oversight of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to Dr W Randolph Woodson, Chancellor, NCSU, dated July 15, 2014
The NSF Semi-Annual Report to Congress in September 2013
The Report of the NCSU Investigation Committee regarding Allegations of Possible Misconduct in Research of 6/30/08
Bruce E. Eaton’s and Daniel L Feldheim’s pages on the University of Colorado website