Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ranjit Kumar Chandra, a well-respected Canadian immunologist and nutritionist, shocked the scientific world with the revelation that he had falsified data and fabricated research results in several published papers, particularly in papers detailing studies on infant formula and on vitamin therapy in the elderly.

Summary of Event

Ranjit Kumar Chandra, a Canadian immunologist and nutrition expert who published more than one hundred scholarly articles, abruptly retired from his research position at Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland, in August, 2002, and moved to Switzerland. Reports soon emerged that Chandra had falsified data for countless studies, including work involving infant formula and vitamin therapy as an aid to memory in the elderly. [kw]Falsifying Research, Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of (Aug., 2002) Chandra, Ranjit Kumar Chandra, Ranjit Kumar [g]Canada;Aug., 2002: Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research[03210] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Aug., 2002: Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research[03210] [c]Education;Aug., 2002: Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research[03210] [c]Publishing and journalism;Aug., 2002: Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research[03210] [c]Medicine and health care;Aug., 2002: Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research[03210] [c]Science and technology;Aug., 2002: Immunologist Resigns After Being Accused of Falsifying Research[03210] Harvey, Marilyn Masor, Mark

At the time of his resignation from the university, Chandra was a major figure in the fields of immunology and human nutrition. Twice nominated for a Nobel Prize, Chandra had been the recipient of numerous research grants from both private industry and the Canadian government. Doubts about the accuracy of Chandra’s research first arose following publication of research done during the 1980’s into the use of infant formulas. One study, funded by the Nestlé Corporation, supported the industry’s claims that artificial formula was an acceptable substitute for breast milk. Nestlé had been under fire for many years for promoting artificial formula in developing nations. As the company’s markets overseas dwindled, Nestlé began promoting its Good Start infant formula in the United States. The company’s advertising claimed Good Start reduced the risk of allergies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was skeptical, and it pressured the corporation to back up the advertising with legitimate scientific data. During the late 1980’s, Nestlé hired Chandra to conduct a study to prove their claims were valid, and the study would involve comparing Nestlé’s product with that of its competitor, Ross Pharmaceuticals.

Around the same time, Chandra had been hired by Ross to study its infant formula as well. Several persons close to this research project raised questions about Chandra’s methods and the reliability of his findings. Mark Masor, a clinical researcher for Ross, said he became curious because Chandra never contacted him to arrange for the large amounts of Ross formula that would have been needed for the Nestlé study. Furthermore, Chandra’s published conclusions stated that the number of infants involved in the study had been in the hundreds. Masor later told journalists at the Canadian Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcasting Company (CBC) that such a study would have required the use of twenty thousand cans of formula. In addition, the time frame for the study seemed unusually short. Masor also noted that Chandra’s conclusions contradicted the findings of earlier work done by Ross researchers. Although the infant formulas marketed by Nestlé, Ross, and another competitor, Mead Johnson, had almost identical ingredients, Chandra had concluded the Nestlé and Mead Johnson formulas were effective in reducing the risk of allergies in infants, while the Ross formula was not. Along with Nestlé, Mead Johnson helped to fund Chandra’s work; Ross did not.

Marilyn Harvey, a research nurse who worked directly with Chandra, also had doubts about the infant-formula studies. Her job was to enroll infants from the area for both studies. In 1989, while she was still in the process of finding infants, she was shocked to learn Chandra had published results from his Nestlé study, supporting the claims made in Nestlé’s advertising.

Even more startling to Harvey was her discovery that Chandra claimed to have finished a similar study for another company, Mead Johnson, which involved two hundred infants. By the early 1990’s, Chandra had published results from three separate studies claiming more than seven hundred infants as test subjects, yet Harvey knew she had not recruited more than 25 percent of that number. Sufficiently disturbed by the inconsistencies between what she knew had occurred and what Chandra had reported, she approached administrators at Memorial University. She told university officials that she suspected data fabrication.

A university committee investigated Harvey’s allegations and concluded that Chandra’s studies included falsified data. However, Chandra was not fired. He later filed suit against Harvey, claiming she had stolen data. Harvey was able to prove her innocence, but she remained convinced that Chandra sued simply to punish her. The suit was, in any case, an action that could have served as a deterrent for other potential whistle-blowers at Memorial University.

Chandra continued his association with Memorial until 2002. After putting the infant-formula studies behind him, he began publishing papers on the effects of multivitamins in preventing dementia in the elderly. Chandra claimed that older people who had been put on a course of vitamin supplements improved their cognitive functions from that of one suffering from dementia to that of one considered to have normal cognitive functions. The multivitamin had been developed and patented by Chandra, and he continued to market it into 2006. It was Chandra’s claims about vitamin therapy, and not the controversy concerning falsified data in the infant-formula study, which led to his downfall and retirement.

Chandra had initially submitted a paper, in October, 2000, summarizing his vitamins research to the British Medical Journal (commonly referred to as BMJ). Journal editors found significant flaws in the paper, a follow-up of a study Chandra published in The Lancet in 1992, and were so disturbed by its contents that they asked several experts, including a statistician, to review the work. They concluded the paper presented strong evidence of having been falsified. The journal contacted officials at Memorial University and asked them to investigate.

Although rejected by BMJ, Chandra’s paper was published by a less prestigious journal, Nutrition, in September, 2001. Chandra’s claims in the article, “Effect of Vitamin and Trace-element Supplementation on Cognitive Function in Elderly Subjects,” which focused on the almost miraculous results from using the vitamin supplements, drew the attention of science reporters at The New York Times, who summarized Chandra’s conclusions. Skeptics of Chandra’s research included Sternberg, Saul Saul Sternberg, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who read the newspaper report and then read the article as published in Nutrition. He then contacted a colleague, Roberts, Seth Seth Roberts of the University of California, Berkeley. They agreed Chandra’s article contained glaring errors.

By the summer of 2002, Chandra knew he was under severe scrutiny. In early August, he abruptly resigned and moved to Switzerland. He announced his association with l’Universite Internationale des Sciences de la Sante, an institution that investigative journalists from the CBC discovered (in 2006) existed, it seems, but only on paper.

Impact

Chandra’s fraud forced serious questioning by colleagues and others in academia about what could motivate such unethical acts in a respected and successful physician-scientist. The CBC’s investigation suggests the answer was simply greed. When Chandra began his research career at Memorial University, payments were often made directly to the principal investigator on a research project rather than through a university’s accounting system. It was the researcher’s responsibility to purchase necessary supplies and pay for support, including research assistants and clerks, from the checks they received. This was true for funds received from private companies and from the Canadian national research institutes.

Red flags had been raised during the 1990’s when Chandra had been seeking a divorce from his wife. During the proceedings, it was revealed that Chandra had millions of dollars in multiple bank accounts, including several located in offshore tax havens such as the Cayman Islands. In retrospect, questions should have been asked about how a researcher on a university salary could have amassed so much wealth.

The CBC investigation also uncovered evidence that Chandra’s falsification of data extended far back into his research career. Although his early work seemed free of fraud, it appears that much if not most of his later work was fraudulent. He was able to publish many papers based on studies that had never occurred. He had no patients to study and he collected no data. Some critics have suggested that Chandra used a fake name to respond to critiques of his original fraudulent articles.

The Chandra research scandal was unusual in the annals of scientific fraud both in its scope and duration. Chandra spent almost two decades building an elaborate structure of lies, the full extent of which may never be known. It seems that he escaped detection through a combination of luck, audacity, and professional status. He was a well-respected senior researcher, which made it difficult for critics to successfully unmask him. Chandra, Ranjit Kumar

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Seth. “Dealing with Scientific Fraud: A Proposal.” Public Health Nutrition 9, no. 5 (2006): 664-665. Discusses the events leading up to the discovery of Chandra’s fraudulent research. Asks why it took so many years for his deceptions to come to light.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterken, Elizabeth. “The Impact of Scientific Misconduct on Child Health.” Public Health Nutrition 9, no. 2 (2006): 273-274. The author deftly summarizes the adverse consequences of Chandra’s falsified data being used to justify feeding infants artificial formula.

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