Continuing disclosures of scientific misconduct in an international study of breast cancer shake confidence in the medical research Establishment. And they are profoundly upsetting to millions of women and their doctors who have relied on the two-decade-long study's key, and very welcome, conclusion: that early cancer can be just as effectively treated by a lumpectomy and radiation as by a full mastectomy.
The National Cancer Institute, which funds the study, has assured the public that the falsifications do not alter the central findings and that such therapy remains valid. But the NCI took extraordinary action Tuesday by forcing the ouster of Dr. Bernard Fisher of the University of Pittsburgh as coordinator of 14 major cancer studies involving tens of thousands of patients in the United States and Canada. It also ordered a temporary halt to enrolling new subjects in the studies, which include trials of tamoxifen, a new drug considered to have high promise.
Earlier this month it was disclosed that a researcher at St. Luc Hospital in Montreal, Dr. Roger Poisson, had altered background data on 100 women in the original breast cancer study. Then Monday came another jolt: that a "discrepancy" had been found in files of another Montreal hospital in the study, St. Mary's, and that the dossiers of all 200 subjects there were being audited. In both cases, the NCI said that Fisher, 75, a pioneer in cancer research, and his staff had been sluggish in following up on the reported falsifications and in publishing corrected data.