Friday, February 10, 2006

The secret life of Dr Chandra

Published today in BMJ

The Secret Life of Dr Chandra
Terry Hamblin
BMJ 2006;332:369 (11 February), doi:10.1136/bmj.332.7537.369
The colourful career of Dr Ranjit Chandra may be old news to BMJ readers. In the spring of 2000 he sent to the BMJ a paper that claimed that a mixture of vitamins and minerals could reverse dementia in elderly people. The then BMJ editor, Richard Smith, thought that it was just too good to be true and one reviewer told him that it had all the hallmarks of having being completely invented. The full story can be read at BMJ 2005;331: 288-91[Free Full Text].
Applying the old adage that a thing isn't true until it's been on television, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has put together a documentary on Chandra made by Chris O'Neill-Yates, and broadcast it over three successive nights last week.
The programme made for compulsive viewing. Here was an eminent academic physician, an officer of the Order of Canada, holder of five honorary doctorates, visiting professor at universities on four continents, donor of $C250 000 (£124 500; $218 000; 182 000) to his alma mater in India and of $C20 000 for a Hindu temple, and supposedly twice nominated for the Nobel prize in medicine, exposed as a fraud.
The story began with a study Chandra carried out in the late 1980s. He was retained by Ross Pharmaceuticals to test whether its baby milk would help the newborns of allergy prone parents avoid eczema. He engaged a research nurse, Marilyn Harvey, to find 288 such neonates; no mean task in a city as small as St John's, Newfoundland, where they worked. She was therefore surprised to find a year later, when she had collected only a handful of cases, that Chandra had published the results of an identical study on a similar product from Nestlé and shortly afterwards another on a product from Mead Johnson. These two studies supported the idea that the products were hypoallergenic, but the original, and almost identical, Ross Pharmaceuticals product was not.
Faced with the impossibility of Dr Chandra having recruited over 700 babies, Marilyn Harvey blew the whistle and his employer, Memorial University, carried out an investigation. Despite this investigation clearly uncovering the fraud, the university backed down, cowed by the threat of a lawsuit from Chandra. Nothing was done, but Richard Smith, having rejected the dementia and vitamins paper, suggested that Memorial investigate him afresh.
Meanwhile, the same paper had been published by the journal Nutrition, where it came to the attention of professors Saul Sternberg of the University of Pennsylvania and Seth Roberts of Berkeley. The two professors found so many glaring errors in the paper, they concluded that the most likely explanation was that Chandra had made it all up. By 2002 Memorial had asked Chandra for his raw data. He was unable to provide it, claiming it had been stolen or that the university had lost it. Memorial was relieved when Chandra suddenly decided to retire and leave Canada.
When Chandra divorced his wife it was revealed that he had 120 different bank accounts in various tax havens. He patented his multivitamin mixture and is selling it as an "evidence based" nutritional supplement for the elderly. The "evidence" is derived from his dubious clinical trials.
Scientific fraud is seldom isolated. As Richard Smith observed in 2005, there must be grave doubts about the reliability of the 200 papers published by Chandra other than the Nutrition one, and yet, to date, that is the only one to have been formally withdrawn.

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