The Secret Life of Ranjit Chandra
Reporter: Chris O'Neill-Yates
Producer: Lynn Burgess

From The National,
Jan. 30, 2006

Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra

St. 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 flourish.

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."


But in 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 the beginning.

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.

Mark Masor

In the 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 study.

"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 childhood."

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
St. John's was not easy.

Marilyn Harvey

"It took 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 that study.

By the following summer,
Harvey 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 study.

"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."

That 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,"
Harvey 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 correlating.'"

Was it possible that someone recruited the babies and Harvey didn't know about them?

Harvey 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.'"

The 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."

Harvey 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.

Jack Strawbridge

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 entity.

"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 place.

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 to get."

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 results?

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 arthritis.

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 the study.

Seth Roberts

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 of seniors.

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

The 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 strengths.

"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."

By 2002, 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 mailbox in
Canada. His institutional affiliation was in India, but his physical mailbox was in Canada. 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.

By 2002,
Memorial 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."

A witch hunt is definitely not what Harvey had in mind. An honest conclusion to the investigation would have been enough.

"I'm very sad,"
Harvey 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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