Scientists Criticize Study on Genetics of Old Age

Originally published in the New York Times July 9th, 2010. To go to the New York Times Website please click here

A study on the genetics of centenarians that was published last week in Science, a leading scientific journal, has come under criticism from geneticists who say it has obvious weaknesses, is probably incorrect and should not have been published in a premier journal.

.The study, which received broad press coverage, said that 150 genetic variants predictive of longevity had been identified among New England centenarians and that a test based on those variants could predict who would live to extreme old age.

But on Wednesday, the senior author of the report, Dr. Thomas T. Perls of Boston Medical Center, part of Boston University’s School of Medicine, said in an e-mail message that he had been “made aware that there is a technical error in the lab test” used on some of the centenarians. The results are now being re-examined, but a preliminary analysis suggests that “the apparent error would not affect the overall accuracy of the model,” he said.

Science issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the data was being reanalyzed, but that its reviewers “determined that the statistics and the design of the study were sound.”

The Boston University group’s results may withstand challenge. But the issue sheds light on a tangled knot of interests, starting with weekly scientific journals like Nature, Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, which are embroiled in a constant competition for reports of newsmaking scientific advances.

Journal editors know that press coverage can burnish a journal’s reputation. Scientists, in turn, like to have their work cited in the news media because it helps draw attention to their fields and raise money. And science journalists, competing for space with political and sports news, welcome astounding claims without always kicking the tires as hard as necessary. These factors sometimes combine to give substantial publicity to scientific claims that may not fully deserve such attention.

The Boston University study was widely reported, uncritically in many cases, after Science held a press conference about it last week. Reviews from geneticists were less enthusiastic.

“I think it is very unlikely indeed that the findings in the Science paper are correct, or even mostly correct,” David B. Goldstein, a geneticist at Duke University, wrote last week in an e-mail message.

“I am pretty surprised that Science carried it,” he added. “And I think this also raises an interesting, more general point, which is how the press ought to handle stuff when there are serious questions about the security of the finding.”

Another expert, Dr. David Altshuler of Massachusetts General Hospital, explained that using different types of gene chips to scan the genome, as the Boston University researchers had done with their centenarians, was widely recognized as a source of possible problems.

By Tuesday, another critic, Dr. Kari Stefansson of the gene-finding company Decode Genetics in Iceland, had identified what seemed to him to be the specific problem. One of the two kinds of chip used by the Boston researchers, called the Illumina 610, attributes a less common form of a gene to having come from both parents instead of just one, Dr. Stefansson said. He calculated that if only 10 percent of the Boston centenarians had been typed with this chip, it would have made the genetic variants appear associated with longevity even though they were not.