Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

JAMA: No plan to pull elephant-cancer risk paper after PETA protest

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JAMAJAMA has decided not to retract an article about cancer risk in elephants after receiving a request to do so from an animal rights group.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently protested the 2015 paper, which found that higher levels of a tumor suppressor gene could explain why elephants have a lower risk of cancer. According to PETA, the paper contained inaccurate information that could be used to justify inhumane treatment of elephants. At the time, the journal told us it considers all calls for retraction.

In an email sent to a representative of PETA over the weekend, Howard Bauchner, Editor in Chief at JAMA and The JAMA Network, wrote:

There is no evidence of scientific misconduct (fabrication or falsification of data) and there will be no retraction of the article.

I hope you appreciate the amount of time it took Dr. Schiffman and colleagues to respond to your allegations.  Calls for retraction of an article should be based upon an understanding of scientific misconduct, and evidence of fabrication or falsification of data, not a disagreement with the data.

I consider this matter closed.

One of PETA’s allegations is that “Potential Mechanisms for Cancer Resistance in Elephants and Comparative Cellular Response to DNA Damage in Humans” only studied captive animals, which don’t live long enough to develop cancer.

Rachel Mathews, Captive Animal Law Enforcement Counsel for the PETA Foundation, told us earlier this month that the organization is also concerned that Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus — which partly funded the research — is using the paper to promote its own agenda. For instance, said Mathews, the circus is using the paper to justify its use of bullhooks — a heavy object shaped like a fireplace poker — to get close enough to elephants to obtain the blood samples used in cancer research.

Captive elephants may not get much cancer, but that’s because they’re dying young of diseases caused by captivity. They die of tuberculosis, arthritis, chronic foot problems, and stress-related herpes viruses. They die young—many as babies—and they develop psychotic behaviors from being chained and abused. Captivity kills elephants, and Ringling doesn’t want people to know it.

These elephants have spent their lives shackled in chains, and forced to live in parking lots and arena basements. Ringling has taken everything from them and made millions, but even in so-called retirement the circus is finding new ways to exploit them. If Ringling truly cared about the elephants, it would retire them to an accredited sanctuary instead of using them as test subjects and breeding machines.

In Bauchner’s response to Heather Rally, Wildlife Veterinarian in the Captive Animal Law Enforcement division at PETA, he includes a detailed response from the last author on the paper, Joshua Schiffman at the University of Utah, to the criticisms of the paper. In regards to the use of captive animals in the paper, Schiffman writes:

As you know very well, the JAMA peer-review and editorial process is extremely rigorous and prior to this manuscript’s acceptance we submitted no less than three revisions with over 130 individual responses to reviewer questions to insure the accuracy, validity, and implications of our scientific findings. The issue of captivity was brought up by the reviewers and, in fact, the discussion section was revised several times to explicitly address both the reliability and limitations of using captive elephant data to support the known observation of limited cancer in elephants. With guidance from JAMA, we were very cautious in the interpretation of the data. Therefore, PETA should be reassured that we have appropriately and reasonably addressed the reliability of using captive animal data for the JAMA readers.

He also mentions PETA’s concerns about whether the findings could be misused in the treatment of animals:

We can only address the scientific concerns expressed by Dr. Rally, and so we cannot respond to her concern about how the circus publicizes the scientific findings of this study…Whether elephants get more or less cancer than humans has no bearing on the ethics of the treatment of captive animals. All of the co-authors share Dr. Rally’s beliefs on the importance of the ethical treatment of animals.

You can read Schiffman’s entire letter to Rally here.

This wasn’t the first time PETA has gotten involved in science publishing. Last year, it nudged a journal to pull a paper that had been flagged for fraud by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity.

And this isn’t the first time JAMA has had to consider a call for retraction from a somewhat unusual source — last week, it announced it would not retract a 2005 review article about fetal pain, despite requests from anti-abortion activists who claim it has been misused in debates about the procedure.

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Written by Alison McCook

June 22nd, 2016 at 10:15 am

Comments
  • Cameron June 22, 2016 at 10:50 am

    The elephants actually have *more* copies of the tumor suppressor gene TP53, not “lower levels” as your post states…

    • Alison McCook June 22, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Fixed, thanks!

  • ohman June 22, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    “the 2015 paper, which found that lower levels of a tumor suppressor gene could explain why elephants have a lower risk of cancer.”

    Is this accurate? It seems that higher, not lower, levels of a tumor suppressor gene could explain a lower cancer risk.

    • Alison McCook June 22, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Fixed, thanks!

  • Mary Kuhner June 22, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    We discussed this paper at a recent Evolution and Cancer meeting. It addresses Peto’s Paradox, the observed lack of proportionality between the number of cell divisions in an organism’s life and its risk of cancer. If cancer arises due to mistakes in cell division, an organism with vastly more cells should have vastly more cancer, unless bigger organisms have evolved more cancer defenses than small short-lived ones. The argument that captive elephants may be too short-lived to develop cancer seems not to really engage with the numbers involved: if an elephant got cancer at the same per-cell-division rate as a mouse it would develop cancer within a few years of birth. And the argument that it will encourage mistreatment of elephants is very strange to me. How could the fact that elephants have multiple copies of p53 ever be the basis for an argument that it’s okay to mistreat them? Could *any* research involving elephants ever meet this standard?

    • NRV June 28, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      Ringling is “retiring” the elephants to their Center for Elephant Conservation. I understand that Ms. Rally’s
      assertion is that Ringling is using (and/or skewing) the data to
      justify the cancer research at Ringling’s CEC in lieu of an accredited animal sanctuary.

      Ringling’s page about cancer research at the Center, which also references the JAMA article that they
      contributed to:
      https://www.ringlingelephantcenter.com/cancer-research/

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