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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The IL 15 Cargo

Science is an abstract concept. In describing the cargo cults Feynman pointed out the difficulty of defining what science is.
But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty

How has the scientific community dealt with the IL-15 story?
if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

One thing that casts doubt over the IL-15 story is that people seem to have a hard time finding it. N-Rays were hard to find so we looked into it. There are those who have created a convincing narrative to describe the life and times of IL-15. The problem is that recently there have been an inordinate amount of retractions of papers that created the narrative. Silvia Bulfone-Paus has had 12 papers retracted. The reason was fabricated data obtained by two rogue laboratory people. Problem solved? Not quite. Six more papers are under investigation at a second University where the Silvia Bulfone-Paus also works. The rogue white lab coat wearing scoundrels, Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian, weren't around during this research!

Why so much controversy? There appears to be a discrepancy between the IL-15 narrative and its ability to predict what will happen in the laboratory. Rather than presenting the puzzling data, they altered the results to fit the narrative. They were caught. Twelve papers and counting have been taken out.

Is IL 15 real? You can buy the protein from R&D Systems. There are antibodies against it. It was cloned in 1995. But a real scientific approach to understanding this protein would start by going into the laboratory to reproduce some critical work. Start by cloning the protein again. Does the DNA sequence match? Do the antibodies available bind to the newly cloned IL 15? Does the purified protein mimic IL-2–induced T-cell proliferation? The basics would be a simple place to start, accumulate IL 15 and begin to examine the role of this protein.

Another way to examine the role of IL 15 is to look into the careers of the researchers. We know there are a couple researchers who wish they had never met IL 15. The lead author of the first paper describing IL 15, Kenneth Grabstein, is now the CSO at Seattle based Allozyne, an Accelerator company that recently bought Poiniard indicating their dedication to business as opposed to science. This company is a tiny little place one block away from Accelerator that has a singular mission to merge and make money for its investors. When did Dr. Grabstein move on from IL 15? In the world of Cargo Cults Seattle, Dr. Grabstein has done quite well for himself. However, he has left path of abandoned research for others to sort out while cashing in on companies such as Immunex and Corixa. Immunex made its fortune from TNF alpha. Corixa was acquired by GSK. IL 15 provided Dr. Grabstein some early publications but later in his career he lost interest in helping the world understand this protein.

You would think that the laboratory approach to clearing up some of the mystery would be employed by someone. Make a list of things that were fabricated, such as the many western blot images. Simply redo them and publish your results. Your conclusions would be simple, "We do (or do not) see a band on this western blot. Keep the narrative out of it. Make a list of repeated experiments and provide your results. Don't interpret them, just provide the results. While the office-bound professors and early-pioneers-now-turned-businessmen hope it will all blow away, lets hope it doesn't.