Red Wine and Lies

Here is a sampling of reaction to the news that a researcher who had done a lot of work on the compound resveratrol—found in red wine along with foods like peanut butter, and thought by some to have healthful, perhaps even life-extending, properties—stood accused of a vast fraud:

For years, connoisseurs of red wine believed their consumption improved their cardiovascular health. Today, they’re learning it may be a big lie.

Bad news, winos: Turns out, the University of Connecticut researcher who discovered that red wine has anti-aging qualities actually fabricated a shitload of data. Which means that your purple mouthed cry-juice might not be good for your heart after all.

Booze doctor lied, red wine is not good for you

Fraud sours findings on health benefits of red wine

Red Wine’s Health Benefits May Have Resulted from Falsified Research Data

Apparently wine was not so good for us!, salud: Red wine researcher accused of fraud.

There were lots and lots of headlines and Tweets like that. But is there any reason to think that Dipak K. Das’s downfall is a significant setback for resveratrol research? Or that red wine has been revealed to be “not good” for us? Did the guy matter that much? Did he matter at all?

When I asked that question last week of David Sinclair, the Harvard biologist who may be the best-known name in resveratrol research, he said he hadn’t even heard of Das (he told The New York Times essentially same thing). Retraction Watch, which has been all over this story, did some digging and found that Sinclair had been on a committee with Das and has cited him. That discovery led a number of people to say that Sinclair had been caught in a flat-out lie.

Maybe he was lying. I left messages with Sinclair to straighten this out and didn’t hear back. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that he was lying. Isn’t it at least possible that he just forgot Das’s name? Do busy researchers remember everyone they’ve cited or rubbed shoulders with in a Hilton ballroom?

Still, it would be nice to get an explanation from Sinclair, who hasn’t exactly shied away from the press in the past.

But that’s a side issue. What really matters is whether Das’s undoing undermines resveratrol research. We can say this much for sure: Das is not Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychologist who was found guilty of research wrongdoing by the university and resigned his tenured post last summer. Hauser was a superstar in his field. Everyone knew his name and his work. No one would begin to argue otherwise.

I contacted several more researchers in the field and asked if they knew anything about Das’s work. Like Sinclair, Linda Partridge, a biologist specializing in aging at University College London, had not heard of Das, and doubted “that it will have much impact” beyond perhaps discouraging some people from studying resveratrol. In other words, an image problem. Partridge and a colleague at University College London, David Gems, published a paper in Nature last year that cast doubt on the mechanism by which resveratrol is thought to extend the lifespan of fruit flies and roundworms.

Richard A. Miller also shrugged. Miller, who is director of the Nathan Shock Center in the Biology of Aging at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, notes that resveratrol is only a very small part of his laboratory’s work. That said, he’s familiar with who’s who in the field but he had never heard Das’s name until the allegations came out. He offered the following skeptical take on the field, which is worth quoting at length:

It seems to me to be quite unlikely that Dr. Das’s current troubles will have much of an impact on the juggernaut of resveratrol research. The field includes a mixture of salesmen (and women) who want to make money regardless of evidence, researchers who are impressed by the (patchy) evidence that resveratrol might have health benefits and are doing serious science, in people or in animals, to try to figure out how to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks, and those who think the initial results were over-interpreted and remain skeptical about the possibilities for resveratrol as a human therapeutic.

Joseph A. Baur, an assistant professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has done a lot of work with resveratrol, and was a graduate student of David Sinclair’s at Harvard. He’s a co-author of a paper published last year that states that “resveratrol has not been shown to extend lifespan in lean mice.” Baur was familiar with some of Das’s work and had met him at a conference once. “His name would definitely come up,” Baur said in an interview. Baur’s first thought was to wonder whether one of Das’s papers suggesting that high doses of resveratrol might be harmful would turn out to be bogus.

Baur doesn’t think, in the end, that the scandal will mean much. Das’s primary research interest was the effect of resveratrol on the heart, but according to Baur, “the cardiovascular benefits of red wine were not built on Dipak Das’s work.”

Also important to note: Asking whether resveratrol is good for you and asking whether red wine is good for you are different questions. There are studies that suggest red wine is beneficial but don’t link those findings to the trace amounts of resveratrol the beverage contains.

The evidence against Das appears damning. And his responses so far haven’t done much to bolster his case—for instance, the all-caps charge that an exhaustive, three-year investigation that produced a 60,000-page report is simply an attempt to malign him because he’s Indian. It may be that Das is guilty of fraud. It may also be that resveratrol isn’t the wonder drug that pharmaceutical companies have bet hundreds of millions of dollars on. But the former may have nothing to do with the latter, and neither means your nightly Merlot isn’t salubrious.

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