Wow! Just wow! I’ve been reading the background on the story from last November’s Huffington Post article on University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor Chad Kerksick. As I mentioned in the previous post, I did some work with his lab a few years ago, and it was my first encounter with muscle punches or muscle cores in exercise physiology. They were a nice group, lots of laughter and smiles and good questions and everybody seemed to be friends with everyone else. As I page through the Institutional Review Board investigative findings, it paints a very different picture. One of Dr. Kerksick’s grad students/study managers pulled a “whistle-blower” on his research practices with regards to the way he enrolled volunteers, performed biopsies of muscle and fat tissue, subsequently handled the material and even how he documented the results.
I might have a slightly different perspective on this than the average person. I’ve mentioned before that what most people would find shocking in a research lab is how young everyone is. Most research in academic labs is done by 20-26 year olds (look at the picture above!) and rarely will you find anyone over 35 in the lab proper. This is different from medical centers and institutes as well as pharma and biotechs where the research staff tend to be older and better trained.
Imagine a company run entirely by one CEO and an army of interns, and you have an idea of what the academic research lab is like. The “CEO” or principal investigator, in this case, is an exercise physiologist, and if my brief exposure is any guide, a good one. He studies exercise, body-building and athletes. He fulfills the image of the jock-scientist, and his group are mostly weight-lifters, student athletes and future sports medicine folks… not your classic molecular biology or medical group.
A needle biopsy device
They paid volunteers to exercise on a treadmill and then collected a sample of muscle tissue from the thigh using a hollow needle, larger than a syringe needle, or alternately, a sample of fat/adipose tissue was taken from the abdomen. The volunteers received a lidocaine shot to prevent local pain, but the tissue is certainly traumatized, resulting in bruising and some light bleeding. I’m sure it’s a very low-risk procedure, but still makes me a bit queasy to imagine what is essentially minor invasive surgery being done in a gym area on a sweaty student by another student. My own misgivings aside, this is not unlike what is going on at medical schools and med tech programs around the world. It’s probably about as risky as having your ears pierced or a tattoo added.
On to the accusations. The review came about as the result of video and research records submitted by one of Chad’s grad students, Patrick Dib. Patrick, going by statements Chad made in response, has been the instigator of other, similar investigations at USC and UCLA. I’m very suspicious that I’m not getting the full story on his background, and I’m having a hard time making sense of the “he said, she said” but three things are clear:
1. Chad Kerksick didn’t adhere to the highest standards of human research in terms of record keeping and minimizing human risk or suffering. He was sloppy and irresponsible in supervising his grad students, probably as the result of all that laughter and all those smiles. People were probably TOO chummy to really bring the axe down on misconduct. “Hindsight is 20/20”.
2. The kind of things the Institutional Review Board found were typical of many labs at primarily undergraduate institutions. It’s like any other audit; if you look hard enough, you’ll find something. Some criticisms included leaving lidocaine in an unlocked drawer in a locked room, or submitting his own muscle tissue to a study (which I didn’t know wasn’t allowed either… I’ve done it myself).
3. The story in the local media and the HuffPo doesn’t really convey the magnitude of infractions committed. Emails with jokes like “bring me Dibs head in a box, or at least his thumbs” are represented as serious death threats. Muscle cores sound very scary, but are routine in this field of study and have been performed hundreds of times without adverse event.
The resolution to the story: Chad received a 1 year leave of absence, agreed to leave OU during that time, and received 18 months salary as part of an arbitration. His existing research has been brought to a halt by the IRB.
One note: the most serious allegations were data tampering, which I don’t think was ever substantiated, and forcing students to submit to fat biopsies, which Kerksick insists was part of the training. I find his explanation makes sense and I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Medical techs and ER techs often work on each other or themselves as practice, and it sounds like that’s what happened here: the procedures were part of education, not research. I also can’t speak to his private funding sources.
What I would like to be the message from Chad’s story is that IRB’s (the institutional review board that governs human research) really need to start conducting regular audits with the same scrutiny they use in investigations of incidents. It protects the researcher and the institution from these kinds of “shocking revelations”
For the rest of the story and further reading:
Read the IRB decision here.
Read Kerksick’s responses.