Secret Life of Ranjit Chandra
Reporter: Chris O'Neill-Yates
Producer: Lynn Burgess
From The National,
Ranjit Kumar Chandra
John's, Nfld., may seem like an unlikely place for scientific scandal to
brew, but in hindsight it appears, perhaps, the perfect place.
For almost three decades, Memorial University provided an out-of-the-way
corner of the scientific world for the career of Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra to
Over the years, he became a world-renowned expert in the field of nutrition
and immunology, was the recipient of the Order of Canada, and said to be a
two-time Nobel Prize nominee, a man they called "the Jewel of Memorial."
the summer of 2002, Chandra packed up his office and quietly slipped into
retirement. He had been accused of committing scientific fraud by one of the
world's most prestigious journals. For those who had followed his work over
the years, it was a sad end to an otherwise remarkable career.
In 2005, the study that brought Chandra's career to a halt was officially
retracted. That might have been the end of his story, but in fact, it's just
Over the past year, CBC News has been digging into Chandra's past and what
we've found is startling. We've uncovered a pattern of scientific fraud and
financial deception that dates back to the eighties. And perhaps the most
astonishing fact is this: the university that employed him knew he had
committed fraud and did little to stop it.
Looking back on his career at Memorial, it's difficult to pinpoint the
moment Chandra's life of deception began.
By all reports, he was an engaging teacher and good with patients, but those
things seldom deliver international recognition. So if recognition didn't
come his way naturally, he was not adverse to helping it along.
Like the time Chandra asked former colleague Sean Brosnan to nominate him
for a scientific award.
"All I had to do was sign. I've never seen so many superlatives in a
sentence in my life, so I think ego did matter to him," Brosnan says.
Chandra travelled the world, speaking at conferences, attending conferences
… away from Memorial for as many as 120 days a year. And still, he managed
to turn out study after study, as many as 11 in a single year.
late eighties, one of the biggest studies Chandra undertook was under the
direction of Mark Masor. Back in the eighties, Masor was a clinical research
associate for Ross Pharmaceuticals in the U.S., the company that makes the
baby formulas Isomil and Similac. Ross wanted to test whether their formulas
could help babies avoid allergies, and they picked Chandra to conduct the
"He had at that time a worldwide reputation; he was world-renowned for his
work," Masor says. "He was one of the very first ones who ever did any
research on the nutrition-affected immune development during infancy and
Chandra's research nurse at the time was Marilyn Harvey. It would be her job
to find 288 newborns whose parents were prone to allergies who were willing
to take part in the Ross study. Finding that many allergy-prone babies in a
city the size of
was not easy.
basically all my time," Harvey says. "If I worked 40 hours a week, it would
also take my time in the evening and sometimes at night, like I always felt
I was on call for 24-7 for two years or even more."
Around the same time, food giant Nestle introduced the new formula Good
Start to the North American market. The product was supposed to help reduce
the risk to some infants of developing allergies.
The company was under increasing pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration to prove those claims. Nestle had hired Chandra to
scientifically test their product, but as the pressure on the company
mounted in late 1988, Chandra was just in the early stages of conducting
By the following summer,
had recruited only a handful of subjects, so she was shocked when she came
across the already published results of the Nestle study.
"I would say there was only probably one-quarter of the patients even
recruited in this study," Harvey says. "And he had all of the data analyzed
and published even before we had even had the data collected!"
Masor saw the study too, and one thing in particular caught his attention.
Nestle was comparing its formula to his company's products. Yet, Masor's
company had never been asked to provide Nestle with the thousands of
clinically labelled cans of their formula that would be needed for such a
"I asked him directly. I said: 'Dr. Chandra, you know I read your study you
published and I was curious how you labelled all that formula because
obviously we didn't do it for you.' And he said, ‘Oh, we did it here. Well,
that's not very reasonable because to feed that number of infants, we're
talking about 20,000 cans that would have to be labelled. And to do that by
hand – we did it by machine at the factory. And to do that by hand with a
handful of staff is pretty unreasonable. So that – I was very suspicious
from that point on."
wasn't all. Almost the same time the Nestle study was published, Chandra
published yet another baby formula study, for Mead Johnson, one with more
than 200 more babies enrolled. That made three studies involving more than
700 babies that Harvey was supposed to have worked on.
"He thanked me,"
says, "I think that was an article ‘Thank Marilyn Harvey for her diligent
work.' And I thought, ‘But I didn't do this. This is not what I am doing.
This is, this is, you know, published too early and the numbers are not
Was it possible that someone recruited the babies and Harvey didn't know
says. "Where? You couldn't do a study of this magnitude and not be visible."
There was another bewildering fact. In the Nestle and Mead Johnson studies,
Chandra concluded that those company's products helped reduce the risk of
allergies, while the Ross formula which was virtually the same did nothing.
Masor says he asked, "'Dr. Chandra, how can you explain that we didn't see
anything with our study and you did with the Nestle study?' And he said,
'Well, the study really wasn't designed right.'
"I said: 'Dr. Chandra we designed the study with you. You designed it.
That's why we went to you, so you would be able to do it correctly.' And he
said, ‘Well, you didn't really pay me enough money to do it correctly.'"
turning point for Harvey came when she happened to see a summary of yet
another paper Chandra planned to submit for publication. It was a five-year
followup on the Nestle study - a followup on a study that hadn't been done
in the first place. She agonized over whether or not to report him.
"Here I am working with a world renowned nutritionist, trend-setting
allergist, immunologist," Harvey says. "Could I be wrong? You do
second-guess yourself. Could I be wrong? I didn't want to jeopardize all the
good work that's being done at Memorial University of Newfoundland. But yet,
this had, this story had to be told. And someone else had to realize that
this was happening."
reluctantly became a whistleblower. The university put together an
independent panel to investigate the allegations against Chandra. The
committee spent three months interviewing witnesses and examining five
publications of Chandra's. The investigators were all asked to sign a
confidentiality agreement, so the results have never been made public.
However CBC has obtained a copy of their report.
The report issued in 1994 concludes, "With the evidence presented, the
testimony of many witnesses and the fact that absolutely no raw data (or
files) of any kind were exhibited, the committee cannot accept that the
(Nestle) study was done anywhere near to the completeness or with the
accuracy reported… For that matter, the same can probably be said for the
Mead Johnson work as published in the British Medical Journal.
"In fact, the committee cannot identify anyone who did or remembers (doing)
a significant amount of work, and the co-authors of the papers had very
little or very likely nothing to do with the work.
"With respect to the allegations, the Committee is, therefore led to
conclude that scientific misconduct has been committed by Dr. Chandra."
Despite the committee's conclusion, the university decided not to take any
action against Chandra.
University vice-president Jack Strawbridge says the investigation was
dropped because Chandra accused the committee of bias and threatened to sue.
"The university was facing a potential lawsuit," Strawbridge says. " There
would be loss of reputation, loss of income, etcetera. We, you could be
looking at a very, very large lawsuit. And the university would want to be
sure it was on firm footing before it took any disciplinary action. I mean
it, the only disciplinary action that would be appropriate in a circumstance
like that would be firing. I mean, you're you're not going to suspend him if
it was as gross as what the committee concluded, I also think very
substantial. And uh fabricating research results is usually considered a
capital crime in academia."
Was the university so afraid of being sued that it let Chandra essentially
get away with academic fraud?
"Universities like ours are publicly funded. I think if Dr. Chandra had been
working in a different area of science, where, um, let's say if life and
death were involved, if he were claiming a cure for cancer, let's say that
that there was fraudulent," Strawbridge says.
This at a time when hypoallergenic baby formula was pretty much an unknown
"But he was looking at reducing the incidence of eczema," Strawbridge says.
"It wasn't the same as life and death matters where I think if those had
been at stake, it's possible the university might have acted differently."
While the investigation against Chandra had been going on, the editors of
one medical journal, the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and
Nutrition, had been hanging onto a study he'd submitted for publication. But
when the journal was told by Memorial that there was insufficent evidence to
proceed, they went ahead and published his five year followup on the Nestle
milk study … a followup on a study that had never been done in the first
Strawbridge says the journal's editors should have read between the lines.
"If I was the editor of a journal and I was told by a scientist's home
university that there wasn't sufficient evidence to proceed, to me that is a
huge red flag. I don't know why they would have published the paper. I
wouldn't have if I was the journal editor.... In the delicate world in which
we live, and that is as close to the straight goods as you're probably going
It had been three years since Harvey had blown the whistle on Chandra. The
news that Memorial would take no action against him came as a shock. Still,
she's never doubted that she did the right thing.
"Because it was fraud. It was academic fraud. It was wrong! This was just
purely wrong. It was wrong," she says.
How many more Chandra studies are there that might contain fraudulent
It's difficult to say without seeing the raw data. However, the journals in
which Chandra published might want to take a look at some of his studies,
including, for example, in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. It's based
on data from the non-existent Nestle study. Or this $61,000 study done for
the Newfoundland government on the effect of fish oil on rheumatoid
We could find no evidence the study had been done.
Or his best-known study published in the Lancet in 1992… We tried to reach
the people thanked. None of the people we could reach recalled working on
According to Berkeley Prof. Seth Roberts, there are other reasons to be
suspicious about this one.
"There are statistical impossibilities in the Lancet paper and there's
mistakes, there are inconsistencies between the graphs and the text. And
there's this claim that everybody approached agreed to be in the study.
That's just not possible," Roberts says.
In the spring of 2000, a study arrived at the London offices of the
prestigious British Medical Journal. Chandra had submitted a study to the
journal about the effects of his own patented multivitamin on the memories
One of the journal's editors was so convinced something was wrong with it,
he asked the editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, to have a look at it.
"I thought, 'Yes, I have all kinds of doubts about this too. We then sent it
to two reviewers, one a statistical expert with a lot of experience of
research misconduct, and to a reviewer who knew about the kind of work it
was. And both of them had very serious doubts. In fact, the statistician
said: ‘This has all the hallmarks of having been completely invented.'"
The BMJ rejected Dr. Chandra's study and asked Memorial to investigate.
Strawbridge says, "So they sent that to us and we thought, ‘Oh, here we go,
uh, on something else, you know?' And the president asked the then
vice-president research and myself to have a look at it."
Chandra, meanwhile, wasn't about to allow a rejection from the BMJ to stand
in his way.
He submitted the same study to another journal, Nutrition, and this time he
got lucky. The September 2001 issue carried Chandra's study, which claimed
his patented multivitamin could dramatically improve the memory of seniors.
Roberts and Saul Sternberg
improvements were so amazing they caught the attention of the New York
Times, and that, ironically, was bad news for Chandra. Psychology Prof. Saul
Sternberg from the University of Pennsylvania read about Chandra's
remarkable results, and he called his friend, Roberts of Berkeley. Both
professors found the results too good to be true.
"Forever and ever people would be taking these vitamin, multivitamin
supplements after they got to age 65, cause it, it was incredible what he
found," Roberts says. "It would change everyone's life, you know millions
and billions of people's lives, if it was true. And yet here it was in just
an average journal. What's that about?"
Chandra claimed to have given 96 healthy seniors from St. John's a daily
multivitamin pill for a year. He then tested their memory for improvements.
But the test results didn't make sense.
"It turned out that the scores that his subjects were getting put them in
the demented category," Sternberg says. "The average score made them
demented. Now, ah, so they would have been hospitalized or under some kind
of care. But in fact, he claimed that none of them was demented. They were
all normal functioning people."
"Yeah, these people would have been too demented to understand what a study
was, if you believed his numbers," Roberts says.
Yet after just one year of taking his multivitamin, these same seniors went
from demented to completely normal. Then there was Chandra's claim that he
had tested each vitamin in his multivitamin separately and at different
"It's unbelievable. It's just too much work. Gigantic, gigantic resources
would be needed to do such a study," Roberts says. "He'd have to have a
gigantic grant just to do that study… Dozens of helpers and hundreds of
thousands of dollars."
The two professors found many more glaring errors in Chandra's study.
Was there any possible explanation for the errors found in the study?
"Oh yes," Roberts says. "There's a very possible explanation. It's that he
made it up."
Chandra knew his studies were under attack. And in what now appears to have
been a desperate bid to shore up support for his two beleaguered studies, he
published two more, this time in his own journal, Nutrition Research. The
first study by himself backed up the findings of his study that was under
attack. The second study by an Amrit Jain happened to support the findings
of his 1992 Lancet study that had also been questioned. Unfortunately, no
one has ever been able to find Jain.
"We wrote Amrit Jain. We never heard from Jain," Roberts says. "We couldn't
find any other papers by this guy. It's like he didn't exist. He had no
email address, which is very strange. His mailing address was a rented
His institutional affiliation was in India, but his physical mailbox was in
And not only that it was a rented mailbox. That's extraordinary.
"I think that Jain never did the study. Jain may not even exist. There may
be no such nutritional scientist named Jain," Sternberg says.
University knew they had a problem. They asked Chandra to turn over his
data. He accused the university of losing it.
"It's like little kids talking, you know, the, the dog ate my homework.
Somebody stole my data, or you've lost my data," Strawbridge says.
"That immediately sets all kinds of alarm bells ringing," Smith says. "I
mean it is a condition of submitting a study to the BMJ that if we ask to
see the original data, you have to produce it. And if you can't, then I'm
afraid the assumption is that probably this was invented."
Rather than turn over his data, Chandra retired in the summer of 2002 just
as he said he had always planned to. Memorial shut the door behind him and
considered the case closed. Again.
"We tried," Strawbridge says. "We, we weren't able to get the data and he
resigned. Are there other things we might have done? Well, there's always
things you could do, I suppose. But a lot of them would involve so many
resources that we might be accused of having been seen on a witch hunt."
hunt is definitely not what
had in mind. An honest conclusion to the investigation would have been
"I'm very sad,"
says. "I have had periods of devastation and then I have had periods saying:
‘You did what you could do, let it go.' So that's how I try to live. I did
what I could do as a nurse, as a person. I did what I could do. That's it."
Since retiring in 2003, Chandra has been travelling the world speaking at
conferences, publishing studies and tending to his vitamin pill business. So
far, only one of his studies has been retracted. The rest remain in the
published literature, even though by our count, there are at least 10 that
are either fraudulent or highly suspicious. Apparently, getting away with
fraud is not that hard.
Part two: Tues., Jan. 31 on The National
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