Golden rice (right) protects against vitamin A deficiency in children.

Golden Rice Humanitarian Board

Worth its weight in gold? Golden rice (right) protects against vitamin A deficiency in children.

Researcher sues to block retraction of golden rice paper

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

A researcher whose nutrition study in Chinese children was found in breach of ethical regulations is going to court to salvage a paper describing her results. Nutrition scientist Guangwen Tang is suing the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) and Tufts University, where she has worked for more than 25 years, to prevent the retraction of her 2012 paper in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The society intends to withdraw the paper because a Tufts investigative panel found ethical lapses in the study last year; Tang argues that retraction is tantamount to defamation, according to a report by Courthouse News Service, which states that she filed her suit on 9 July.

According to Adrian Dubock, executive secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board in Switzerland, which was not directly involved in the study, ASN twice asked Tang and her six co-authors to withdraw the paper voluntarily, which they declined to do. The society recently decided to retract the paper on its own, Dubock says—but it has agreed to a 90-day stay after Tang filed her lawsuit, to see if the matter can be settled out of court. (At the moment, the paper is still up on the journal's website.)

Tang, with whom Dubock is in close contact, thinks the problem can be addressed with a "relatively minor modification" to the paper, he says; she told him that a full retraction would damage her reputation. The journal's editor, Dennis Bier of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says that ASN's lawyer is handling inquiries about the issue; ASN could not be reached this morning. Tang and a representative for Tufts University did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

The controversial study was carried out in 2008 among 72 schoolchildren in Hunan province; it aimed to find out how well golden rice—a genetically modified crop aimed at fighting vitamin A deficiency and blindness—is converted into vitamin A in children's bodies. A month after it was published in August 2012, the study caused a massive uproar in China, where Greenpeace and Chinese media claimed that U.S. researchers were conducting unethical experiments on Chinese children.

An investigative panel at Tufts found several ethical problems with the study in a report released last year. Tang had provided "insufficient evidence" that the study was approved by a Chinese ethical panel, for instance; the researchers had not obtained all the necessary consent forms before the trial started; and dates on consent forms appeared to have been changed. Tang, who is Chinese-born, was barred from human research for 2 years and ordered to take a refresher course in clinical trial ethics.

Dubock says that a few months ago, a wealthy philanthropist—whose name he declined to share—offered to bankroll Tang's lawsuit. "My understanding is that this person is very troubled by socially important issues that affect the disadvantaged," Dubock says. He says that Tang is also suing the university, where she closed her lab earlier this year, because "it's Tufts's actions that have caused the journal to decide to retract the paper."

The Declaration of Helsinki, a set of ethical principles for human studies, says that papers about "research not in accordance with the principles of this Declaration should not be accepted for publication"; it does not specifically recommend retraction of papers if ethical flaws are discovered after publication.

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