WHILE TRAWLING THROUGH scientific studies on cancer research in 2015, Jennifer Byrne noticed something strange. One after another, papers were describing strikingly similar experiments involving a particular gene associated with breast cancer and childhood leukemia. Byrne, a professor of molecular oncology at The University of Sydney, recognized the gene immediately because she was part of a team that cloned it two decades earlier.
The problem, she realized upon closer inspection, was that the papers, all of them from China, referred to the wrong nucleotide sequence — a unique series of letters that describes the makeup of a given piece of DNA — being used to deactivate the gene and observe the resulting effects in cancer cells. Either the experiments weren’t examining what they claimed, or they hadn’t been done as described.
“The sequence was being described as one thing, but was sometimes used as if it were something different,” Byrne says. “It’s a bit like applying the same barcode to different items in a supermarket, so you get charged for a pair of shoes when you are actually buying a bag of lettuce.”
What’s worse, each dubious paper contained the seeds of potentially more bad research.