In a blow to a research area hungry for credible findings, the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reported last week that a biochemist "engaged in scientific misconduct ... by intentionally falsifying and fabricating data and claims" in two studies on how electromagnetic fields (EMFs)--the kind shed by power lines and home appliances--affect living cells. The researcher, Robert P. Liburdy, formerly of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California, has agreed to ask the journals to retract the results.
Liburdy's findings were among the first to offer a plausible mechanism for a possible link between EMF exposure and cancer or other diseases. In a pair of 1992 papers of which he is the sole author, Liburdy offered evidence that EMFs increase the flow of calcium into lymphocytes, a kind of immune cell produced in the thymus. The papers created a stir, as calcium ions signal cells to turn genes on and off, and play a role in cell division. Because tumor growth is tied to cell proliferation, an alteration in calcium signaling could conceivably lead to cancer. But in an analysis obtained by Science, ORI states that "Liburdy's claims that EMF causes cellular effects related to calcium signaling [in three figures in the two journal articles] are not supported by the primary data."
Responding to an unknown whistle-blower's allegations of scientific misconduct by Liburdy, LBNL in January 1995 appointed a panel of four lab scientists to investigate. After reviewing raw data and interviewing Liburdy and other scientists, the panel concluded in a July 1995 report that Liburdy "deliberately created 'artificial' data where no such data existed" in a figure in FEBS Letters. In addition, it found, he fabricated data noise for a figure in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences "in order to mislead the reader." These actions, the panel stated, "fall within the definition of scientific misconduct." Because Liburdy had been awarded more than $3.3 million in federal grants for his EMF research, ORI launched a formal review of LBNL's report in fall 1997. In its analysis, ORI "concurs with [LBNL's] findings of scientific misconduct."
In an agreement signed by Liburdy and ORI acting director Chris Pascal, Liburdy agreed to retract the tainted figures in the two papers and not to receive federal funds for 3 years. He "neither admits nor denies ORI's findings of scientific misconduct," the document states. Liburdy did not respond to requests for an interview.
"There's a lot of acrimony in the [EMF] debate, and this won't calm things down," says Richard G. Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Hanford, Washington.