[Corrects that victim of apparent suicide was lead author, not lab director.]
Peter Whoriskey's tale of a whistleblower who was fired by Johns Hopkins Medical School drew me in right from the start.
The story, published on the front page of The Washington Post, began:
The numbers didn’t add up.
Over and over, Daniel Yuan, a medical doctor and statistician, couldn’t understand the results coming out of the lab, a prestigious facility at Johns Hopkins Medical School funded by millions from the National Institutes of Health.
I love stories like this, and Whoriskey's lede promised a fascinating and disturbing mystery tale that I was looking forward to. I was even more intrigued when, only a short way into the story, the lead author of a study from the lab was found dead, an apparent suicide.
I won't spoil any more of the story, but it's a good one, and worth your time. And it makes an important point about accountability and transparency in scientific research. The lab, the federal government, and Hopkins and its public affairs officials fell short, as you will read, on accountability and transparency.
The only problem with the story is that it doesn't get the science right.
The first hint that Whoriskey might be a bit wobbly comes in the sixth graf, when he writes that the lab's research "focused on detecting interactions between genes." I wasn't sure what that meant, but I assumed Whoriskey would clarify that later on. Then he writes that the research in question "would win wide acclaim and, in a coup for the researchers, space in the pages of Nature, arguably the field’s most prestigious journal. The medical school even issued a news release when the article appeared last year: 'Studies Linked To Better Understanding of Cancer Drugs.'"
That's not quite right. Whoriskey describes publication in Nature as if it were the next best thing to a Nobel Prize. Nature is a prestigious journal, but it publishes dozens of studies every week, and Hopkins writes many, many press releases. It's important for Whoriskey's story that this research be important and consequential, but he whips up a little more excitement here than is warranted.
A more serious problem occurs midway through the story when Whoriskey expands on his description of the research:
The lab’s research focused on developing a methodology for finding evidence of genes interacting, primarily in the yeast genome and then in the human genome. Genetic interactions are prized because they yield insights into the traits of the genes involved.
This is muddy; something is wrong. It's unclear what Whoriskey means by "evidence of genes interacting." Genes do all kinds of things, and this is too general to mean much to me. And it gets worse in the second sentence. As far as I know, people have genetically determined traits, but genes do not have traits. And so the idea that interactions offer insight into "the traits of the genes" is difficult to decode.
The trouble continues a bit further on when Whoriskey writes that the researchers "reported discovering 878 genetic interactions, or 'hits.'" Again, I don't know what that means.
The abstract is here, and a quick look will make it clear why Whoriskey struggled with this; it's almost impenetrable. But the research appears to have something to do with regulatory actions inside the cell. The Hopkins press release isn't terribly clear either, but it should have helped Whoriskey; I wonder whether he read it.
It's a shame that Whoriskey didn't take just a bit more time to have someone explain the science to him. Except for that, this is an interesting and troubling tale.