Scientists joust over AIDS research

June 10, 1994|By New York Times News Service

In the kind of dispute that is usually carried out privately in the rarefied atmosphere of academic medicine, two prestigious scientific journals are squaring off in public. The dispute involves the validity of findings in a published report about Kaposi's sarcoma, a skin cancer that affects many AIDS patients.

The dispute involves an experimental compound that Dr. Robert Gallo, one of the world's leading AIDS researchers, believes holds promise for treating Kaposi's sarcoma. The hope is based only on experiments carried out on mice.

The dispute erupted in public Wednesday when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson who tried to duplicate the experiments.

The Arizona team said that the original research published by Dr. Gallo's team in 1992 was seriously flawed because it contained important systematic errors and omissions. They also said that their challenge of the findings was squelched by the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In the Science report, Dr. Gallo's team reported that a compound produced by bacteria and known as SP-PG for sulfated polysaccharide-peptoglycan, controlled the growth of AIDS-associated Kaposi's sarcoma in test tube experiments.

Dr. Gallo's team reported that, in mice, the currently used drugs were less effective and more toxic than SP-PG. The team included researchers from the University of Southern California, the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, the Daiichi Pharmaceutical Co. in Tokyo, which makes SP-PG, and Mr. Gallo's laboratory at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

A team headed by Dr. Marlys H. Witte in Tucson said that it was surprised by finding what it regarded as irregularities in the figures and photographs published in Dr. Gallo's Science article. So the University of Arizona set out to repeat the experiments to see if they could get similar results or improve on them.

Part of the research involved following the course of blue dye injected into the mice. In different phases of their research, the Arizona team injected the dye into the tails of the mice, as was done in the original study. They also purposely erred in the way the dye was injected, and injected it into a different vein. Some of the results contrasted with the original report, supporting the Arizona team's initial skepticism.

Dr. Witte's team reported that it could not "confirm some of the pivotal findings" in Dr. Gallo's report.

Dr. Gallo declined to comment, the Associated Press said.

Dr. Witte's team submitted its own report to Science, but the journal rejected it, saying in part that the Arizona team's explanations were "without serious merit and their experiments an extraordinary waste of time and effort."

Dr. Witte's team wrote back, including comments from another researcher, Dr. H. J. Carroll in New York City, who criticized the editors of Science for foreclosing debate on an issue that is unsettled. Again, Science rejected the report from Dr. Witte's team.

So Dr. Witte's team took the extraordinary step of submitting its report to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which had not been involved in the controversy. In the article, the Arizona team said that the most serious aspect of the controversy "has been the reticence and obstacles encountered public airing of our questions."

In a statement responding to the latest article, Dr. Daniel E. Koshland Jr., the editor of Science, defended his journal's review process and its actions. Experts who read the Arizona team's report told Science not to publish its criticisms and advised Dr. Witte's team to "do additional experiments to make their criticisms more credible."

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