In the spring of 2010 Science 2.0 put the hammer down. Journalist Greg Critser called out both the compound and its lead advocate, Dr. David Sinclair of Harvard, some $720 million richer thanks to GlaxoSmithKline.
In 2000, Dr Sinclair and his colleagues reported that resveratrol specifically triggered the SIRT family of enzymes that are critical to the regulation of energy, and hence, to aging, metabolic disease and diseases of uncontrolled growth, like cancer.But
Resveratrol seemed to accomplish this in a very “clean” fashion. Such specificity is critical to the successful development and approval of any new drug; compounds that lack specificity and trigger lots of other mechanisms are hard to get past the FDA because they may cause side effects and adverse events.
Sinclair’s discovery tool was a relatively new commercial assay, or “probe,” called Fleur de Lys. Like similar chemicals in use for at least a decade, Fleur de Lys inserts itself like a big thermometer into the outer membrane of a cell. There, it can react with whatever cellular enzyme or gene product it is designed to target. When it does, the top of the probe then glows under an ultraviolet light, allowing the researcher to see when a candidate molecule is hitting the right target. (The probe signals are known as florophores.)“Sure, it’s preferable for it to be narrowly targeted, but it’s not really essential,” Sinclair said then.”Think of… aspirin.”
Since 2005, however, substantial concern about the Fleur de Lys probe led several researchers to doubt—if not entirely discount—its utility, especially as a probe for SIRT activation.
Now it turns out Resveratrol evidence may be even weaker than thought. A three-year investigation by the University of Connecticut concluded that Dipak K. Das, the director of its Cardiovascular Research Center but best known for his work on resveratrol, falsified and fabricated data at least 145 times over a seven year period, even digitally manipulating some images using PhotoShop.
The report checks in at 60,000 pages and the findings caused the school to freeze all externally funded research in Das’s laboratory and initiate dismissal proceedings against him. They also notified 11 scientific journals that had published studies.
Sinclair told The New York Times that he didn’t know who Das was and that his work was not all that vital. “Today I had to look up who he is. His papers are mostly in specialty journals.”
But RetractionWatch, the junkyard dogs of science journal accountability (because let's be honest, retractions don't get as much press as exciting media coverage of new studies), unraveled that thread pretty quickly. They uncovered a link showing that Das and Sinclair served together on the scientific committee of the “first international scientific conference of Resveratrol and Health” in Denmark in 2010. Oops. So they asked Sinclair what was up.
He replied, "I apologize. I did not expect my off-the-cuff comments to be printed. I will be more careful."
Ummm, okaaaaay, which led Dr. Janet Stemwedel to note in the comments on RetractionWatch, "Maybe Sinclair thought he was speaking to the New York Times and accordingly didn’t expect his statement to be fact-checked?"
Nice to know the skepticism of the New York Times science coverage is growing. We were alone in the wilderness for a long time on that one. And nice to know that the scientific method continues to correct wrongs and that RetractionWatch continues to find them. Excitement is good, optimism is good but hype that exploits people for financial gain is just wrong.
It turned out resveratrol does not extend lifespan in normal, normally fed mice and at least one Sinclair compound does not improve diabetes, a key claim in the Glaxo acquisition. Right about now Glaxo is probably wishing there was a RetractionWatch in their Mergers&Acquisitions department.
Das, for his part, is trying to send progressives at the university into a panic, claiming that the university’s investigation is racist and calling it a “conspiracy against Indian scientists.” Granted, any charge of racism will usually send people running but it's hard to say 60,000 pages of evidence is a conspiracy by academics.