Cultural clashes in science

On This American Life this week, is a podcast devoted to the subject of “So Crazy it might just work.” Now if you are interested in scientific discovery, its culture and openness, go and listen to the first half of that podcast right now. I’ll wait.

OK, all done? I’m not going to discuss the prime number story although that was also interesting. Instead, I’m interested in quite gripping tale of cancer researcher Jonathan Brody who was approached by his old music teacher Anthony Holland who had an idea about killing cancer cells with sound waves. It was an out of the box idea but as you could see from the podcast, it turned out to be less crazy than one might have supposed.

Of course, the idea doesn’t quite pan out. Well, to be sure, the experiments conducted do not lead to any conclusion one way or the other. Holland becomes frustrated by the standards Brody communicates to him and eventually appears to stop trying.

However, it turns out he didn’t do that. Holland believed in his idea and was not bound by academic standards and norms. So he chose to post his approach and results on the net. The exchange that followed with Brody is instructive.

He starts showing Jon his new website for his new nonprofit company, called–

Anthony Holland Novobiotronics Incorporated, “the future of biotechnology research,” and a lot of dramatic statements.

Gabriel Rhodes Apparently, for the past year, Anthony’s been forming this nonprofit company and building the website, which has tabs for all the different research he hopes to do with the device. Not just cancer, but also Lyme disease, malaria. He doesn’t get into the malaria or any part of that with Jon. But he does show him the pages and pages where he explains, in detail, the cancer experiments they’ve done, without mentioning Jon’s name or the name of his lab, since he doesn’t have permission.

Anthony says his plan is to use the website to raise money so they can continue the experiments. I thought Jon might be angry. Why hadn’t Anthony told him that this is what he’d been doing all year? But Jon’s reaction is–

Jonathan Brody This is amazing. I wish that all the students or the graduate students or people or the scientists that believed in what they were doing took this sort of initiative.

Anthony Holland Wow. That’s nice to hear.

Jonathan Brody I think it’s a beautiful website, Anthony. I think it’s great. I think my only concern is, again, which is my overall concern of where things are at, is you have to be really careful here, that, really, a trained eye or a trained scientist is going to immediately question the overabundance of data without the controls and without the reproducibility.

Anthony Holland So let me respond to this idea that intelligent and expert trained scientists, if shown this data, might dismiss it for lack of more information on the controls. And here’s where I’ve been saving the best information for last, for a sort of dramatic and controversial revelation. I’ve had three important scientists in the field, in the field of cancer research, contact me about my work. They have seen this data. They have seen all of our data.

Gabriel Rhodes This changes the conversation entirely. Suddenly, Jon’s reputation is on the line.

Jonathan Brody I would never give that data out to another scientist. It wasn’t controlled. That’s highly inappropriate behavior that you did, that you actually went behind my back and you sent this to other researchers, where I allowed you to use my credibility and my lab to do this work.

Anthony Holland OK, so here’s my response. First of all, if there was some breach in protocol I made by sharing some preliminary data–

Jonathan Brody Why didn’t you ask me? Why didn’t you say, “Look, someone’s contacting me. Do you mind if I share some of our data together?”

Anthony Holland Could I finish without being interrupted?

Jonathan Brody Yeah.

Anthony Holland If I broke some protocol, I apologize. You never told me, “Keep this data secret and don’t show it to anybody.” It just was given freely–

Gabriel Rhodes Even though Anthony promises he didn’t mention Jon’s name to these other scientists, if one of those scientists were to do a quick Google search, in a few clicks, he could get to Jon, who would then be associated with data he would never want public.

Anthony Holland I’m sorry. I mean, to me as a composer, it’s like if some violinist says, “Hey, do you have a piece for a violin?” I say, “Well, I have a sketch. It’s nothing really great, but I have a little start.” “Well, let me see what it is.” “Sure. I’ll send it along.” So it’s the same kind of thing. And when people contacted me–

Jonathan Brody You didn’t send it as a sketch, Anthony. You sent them data that is as if we had done the proper controls. That’s false advertising.

Anthony Holland Jonathan, in one case, I met for hours with the director of a medical research hospital in the cancer division. And I explained to this doctor exactly, exactly what we did. She knew it was preliminary. She knew there were holes and things that had to be nailed down. She knew all the details of everything, looked at the data, and said, “Yeah, let’s go. Here’s a seven-page contract.” So I’m just saying–

Jonathan Brody I just wanted to be part of the conversation.

Anthony Holland You asked me to respond. No scientist would take my preliminary data seriously. I’m sorry, that’s wrong. And I think you need to make up your mind. Either this preliminary data I have is not worthy of another scientist’s consideration, or you’re mad at me for showing it to another scientist who considered it worthy.

Jonathan Brody It’s not. Anthony, we’ve had discussions. And you were mostly concerned about–

Now this incident is instructive because it gives us some insight into the issue of openness in science. As regular readers know, this is something I am actively concerned about and also I have pointed previously to the open science movement — the case for which is currently most powerfully put forward by Michael Nielsen (see his TED talk just posted here). It has also been put forward in a TED talk by Jay Bradner that specifically deals with the case of cancer research.

What Holland did was precisely what the open science advocates recommend. He set up a website and then actively engaged in communicating the idea to other scientists. The podcast does not really illuminate the outcome of that and neither did the website. But the point is that he did not see why the idea should be kept hidden and acted to do the opposite.

Interestingly, he does not get push-back from Brody on that general concept. He is quite supportive of the website. But talking with other scientists is another matter. Despite assurances, Brody becomes very concerned regarding his reputation. Put simply, Brody had assessed that the results were not ready for academic prime time. Not enough investigation had been done and so there was nothing to communicate. From Holland’s perspective, that was immaterial because without funding and external interest the project seemed dead in the water. Why not disclose whatever it was they knew? Again, this latter belief is entirely consistent with the open science movement and especially the idea of open notebooks.

Now the podcast does expose Brody’s issue. He is concerned for his reputation. If he is seen as over-selling these results or selling them at all, it will poorly signal his adherence to academic standards. Not to mention the relatively unconventional risk he took in collaborating with an amateur. Of course, knowledge of that has now been widely communicated as has the whole idea here — something Brody had clearly assented to.

But what of Brody’s reputation was really at risk? At least the podcast makes clear that he stuck by standards and enforced them rigorously. So there is no risk there. What I suspect is that there is a broader issue scientist’s face: their reputation depends on their ability to garner attention at the right time. Take up other scientist’s time with stuff you could have investigated yourself and you lose an opportunity to take up their attention when you really have something. For Brody, the communication of results to other scientists was therefore worse than the public story itself. It took up their attention and perhaps he was concerned it would reduce his ability to gather interest for other current or future projects.

Nonetheless, all of this just highlights the subtle interactions that occur in science and that the open science movement has its work cut out for it.

8 Replies to “Cultural clashes in science”

  1. Seems like a simple case of an entrepreneur grasping for straws to keep his idea alive and not caring who he burns to do it. Brody has a right to protect his reputation and ask for consideration.

    Holland will quickly learn that there is value to acting with integrity. It may hurt you in the short run but pays off over time.

    Put another way, reputational mechanisms are particularly important when the costs of enforcing an agreement are high as in this case. I don’t see how the case says anything about open science. Norms will need to be developed to guard against fraud or opportunism.

    1. Steve, You don’t know the whole story and some of what Dr. Brody said on live national radio was in error. To be very specific, our cancer experiments with leukemia had very good controls. Those experiments were done exactly to Dr. Brody’s specifications and in fact he himself collected the data and had an expert colleague collect the data also… doing a double blind data collection. Both results agreed… we had killed a large percentage of leukemia cells. When you learn more of the story, you will see that your statement above is a terrible injustice. I have not benefited personally in any way from these cancer experiments, other than having the satisfaction of having re-discovered a new way of destroying cancer cells (at least in vitro for now). If you are unfortunate enough to contract cancer, you are certainly free to go for mainstream treatment. Take a look at pancreatic cancer and see what the statistics are with mainstream treatment. As Dr. Brody himself said, after 25 years in the field, mainstream has only extended the patient’s life by a 2 or 3 months at best….and the quality of life after taking all the chemo is very poor. Obviously a new approach to cancer treatment is needed. Seek out information on our ‘competition’, “NOVOCURE” and you will see what the future holds (they have over a billion dollars in private funding and are now operating in over 17 clinics in the United States and abroad….fully FDA approve. They use essentially the same technology as our company Novobiotronics…. frequency specific electric fields.

      My guess would be that you work in the cancer research field Steve and have much to loose when this major paradigm shift is completed.

      1. This blog’s post is a most enlightening and also quite courageous description of the growing conflict between a typical professional scientist’s over-riding need to time the publication of his or her results in order to best protect and then perhaps advance his or her reputation and career vs. an amateur scientist’s very different kind of urgent need to get something “out there” which might get the attention and valuable time of an atypical reputable scientist, some potential Nobel-winner willing to roll the dice in the service of a much needed paradigm change.

        We do not know if Dr. Holland will be successful, but to us he is a potential modern-day Semmelweis who inspires my husband of forty years and I to continue with what we are doing and how and why per .
        Furthermore, in support of Dr. Holland’s much needed research, we plan to soon freely advertise his work on our current TrueTyme For Android mobile app and our future TrueTyme For iPhone one.

        Warmest regards, Jackie (and Yale) Landsberg Better Tymes

  2. As a scientist, I can’t comment on the validity of these experiments since too many details were left out. It’s not enough to say “the proper controls were done”, I need to see them. Knowing how rigorous the standards are for scientific publication, I think Dr. Brody was correct in his insistence that more proof was needed.

    Two other points bear mention. Firstly, assuming the ultimate goal is to bring this potential treatment to the clinic, Mr. Holland should understand that the standards for regulatory approval are far more exacting than for publication. Secondly, to disparage Dr. Brody for thinking of his reputation is to do him an injustice. Grant-funded research is extremely competitive and depends in part on reputation; Dr. Brody’s ability to fund his laboratory could be severely damaged. Reputation also plays a role in establishing collaborative relationships, which often spur the most valuable innovations in science, as in other fields. Mr. Holland is a teacher. His livelihood doesn’t depend on his reputation as a cancer researcher; Dr. Brody’ does.

    1. Mr. Lee,

      Please go to this link to learn important facts about our work:

      I appreciate your sentiments here and I would be the first to say that after having spent four months in Dr. Brody’s cancer research laboratory, I came to appreciate the hyper competitive atmosphere in which he and other serious scientists are forced to compete for very limited research funding. I have the greatest respect for Dr. Brody and his colleagues who are successful in that extremely difficult environment.

      That being said, the broadcast that went out twice now over National Public Radio/NPR/PRI to nearly 2 1/2 million listeners of ‘This American Life’ (TAL) was obviously agreed to by Dr. Brody and his superiors at his University’s Medical Research Center. If Dr. Brody was terribly concerned that his participation in our collaborative cancer experiments would have negatively impacted his reputation as a serious cancer research scientist, then I don’t think he would have permitted his close friend, Gabe Rhodes, who wrote and narrates the radio program, to have produced the program and ‘pitched it’ to ‘TAL’ in the first place.

      Here was my dilemma, as described in the radio program: Dr. Brody’s available funds are all spoken for…. ear-marked for specific research projects. Our collaborative work together could not benefit from any of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had garnered in his great success in obtaining outside grants from various high level agencies and organizations. My personal funds were quickly depleted from paying living expenses in a distant city (Philadelphia) during the four months of our collaborative work together on cancer. It became clear, that no matter how promising I felt our preliminary data was, I was not going to be able to fund further serious research without help. My only hope was to turn to ‘crowd funding’ as now is being done by many serious scientists.

      When we began to see the data from our earliest experiments against cancer cells with our electronic device, the preliminary results were very exciting (repeated controlled experiments with Leukemia cells, cell line K562, with a double blind counted cell assay indicating a KILL of leukemia cells ranging from 20%-60%). This was remarkable! Further experiments also confirmed that we were able to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy, in effect doubling the number of killed cancer cells while simultaneously lowering the concentration of the chemo by a factor of 8 or more (generally not considered a toxic level to cancer cells!). Many of our discoveries have been duplicated in similar work by other very serious scientists (see below for more details).

      What the radio show neglected to broadcast was that we did indeed have repeated successful experiments that killed many cancer cells and which also had good controls. We saw a range of 20%-60% of leukemia cells killed in multiple experiments without the use of chemo or radiation and we documented a great affect against pancreatic cancer cells as well. Below is a summary of important issues relating to this area of research:

      The use of frequency specific electric fields to destroy cancer cells and slow their growth rate is now a proven technology and in some forms is now a fully FDA approved medical treatment available in the United States an in many foreign countries.

      There are many published peer-reviewed scientific papers on this topic and anybody tracking the US Patent System is well aware that there are now many patents that have been awarded to multinational billion dollar corporations for this technology.

      Our company’s use of a plasma antenna to direct the electric fields at cancer cells is just a different approach which we feel offers an even greater potential at killing cancer cells than the technologies listed above which are all controlled by a billion dollar multinational corporation that has been receiving vast investments of cash from large American Pharmaceutical companies over the past couple of years.

      Thanks to the preliminary experiments our company ran in a major cancer research lab in Philadelphia, we have very promising data which includes photographs and video of cancer cells being shattered into dozens of fragments as well as hard data from top cancer scientists based on standard laboratory cell assay techniques (counting living vs. dead cancer cells after an experiment is completed).

      Our first scientific paper on our cancer research was published in October 2012 as part of the Proceedings of the 7th International Workshop on Biological Effects of EMF in Europe and is available at these links:

      Click to access Dubost%20-%20Morphological%20transformations%20of%20human%20cancer%20cells%20and%20mciroubules%20caused%20by%20frequency%20specific%20pulsed%20electric%20fields%20broadcast%20by%20an%20enclosed%20gas%20plasma%20antenna.pdf

      Our company does not sell any devices of any kind nor do we offer medical advice or treatments. We merely desire to continue pursuing our laboratory experiments with what appears to be a very promising technology in the battle against cancer and according to some who have taken the time to read the scientific literature and look at our preliminary results, we have had better results against cancer than many giant and very well funded corporations which make trillions of dollars off the cancer industrial complex.

      Novobiotronics is a US Federally registered Nonprofit 501(c)(3) company
      In the United States and is an educational and charitable organization dedicated to Laboratory experimentation with electronic technologies against cancer and pathogenic organisms.

      We at Novobiotronics Inc. sincerely believe that given the chance to duplicate our preliminary experiments in a new cancer research laboratory dedicated to this new approach of using our custom electronic signals to destroy cancer cells, we may well discover that this technology offers even greater promise for a future nontoxic, noninvasive and inexpensive means of destroying cancer cells and slowing their growth.

      The science of frequency specific electric fields to kill cancer cells
      is no longer in question, it is an established fact in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The only question that remains is if our specific approach will continue to be successful against cancer. Considering the trillions of dollars that are invested every year in toxic chemotherapy drugs and dangerous radiation treatments, the funding we are trying to obtain to equip our new lab is a miniscule amount and every dollar will go direct into lab equipment and supplies, we have no ‘administrative overhead’ or salaries. Our work is being done for the potential future benefit of all of mankind.

      Anthony G. Holland
      President, Novobiotronics Inc.

      1. Mr. Holland, thank you for your thoughtful and serious response to the points I raised in my comments. Funding is indeed a constant challenge for biomedical research. You seem to be addressing that challenge through “crowd funding” and by taking an entrepreneurial approach; I think this approach should be more widespread. I look forward to reading the material you provided links for, and I wish you the best of luck.

        J. Lee, PhD

  3. Mr. Holland, have you and Dr. Brody explored the matter of security? Your differences with Dr. Brody remind me of experiments that were carried on between Henry Ford, in Michigan, and Thomas Edison, in New Jersey, to perfect a battery that would power the automobile. (Ford and Edison foresaw the public health challenges that power by combustion would produce. See Internal Combustion by Edwin Black) Apparently, those experiments were tampered with by third parties. To my mind, it’s not necessary for you to prove that tampering occurred. The important aspect is to determine whether security was, in fact, in place and significant. If the answer is no, then perhaps too much significance is being placed on results that were so aberrant.

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