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Friday, August 5, 2016

Follow the Money

It seems I'm not alone in my disgust at the leadership of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) and how they allowed Theranos to abuse their conference to try to pretend they have any legitimacy. The FT reports that members of the society are apparently resigning in protest at not just giving Theranos the platform they did, but the way the normal rules were bent to eliminate the chance of actual tough questions.

Dr Andy Hoofnagle, a member of the organising committee, said he and several of his colleagues had “fought really hard to prevent” Ms Holmes from appearing but were overruled by the AACC president, Patricia Jones.

“I’m removing myself from the committee and don’t intend to pay my dues next year,” he added, in effect announcing his resignation from the association.

Others were not happy with the decision and called the society President, Patricia Jones, "stupid" but decided not to resign as she leaves office next year. Jones defended her decision, deriding the very idea that even though she'd had to fight her AACC colleagues and force the Theranos presentation on them, anyone could possibly even consider it inappropriate.

This is the same person who introduced Elizabeth Holmes before her talk on Monday, and as she ceded the podium to the Theranos CEO could be heard to say "You're going to be awesome."

Now some have defended that as something a moderator does to help keep a presenter calm and perfectly normal. As someone who has done that role of introducing speakers, I can tell you that no, it's not normal. You'd be hard pressed to consider doing it for a first year graduate student at their first talk, let alone the CEO of a (once) multi-billion dollar company.

I found myself wondering why Patricia Jones was so willing to sacrifice the reputation of her society, or how she could be so naive as to allow a wolf in sheep's clothing to abuse them so badly. As I was talking this over with a friend of mine, a very Sarcastic Brit, he made the following comment:

Follow the money

And then I remembered that this April, following terrible media resulting from the lawsuits and criminal probes it faces, Theranos created a new Scientific and Advisory Board to aid in "advising Theranos regarding the full integration of its technology into routine clinical practice, and publication and presentation in scientific journals and at scientific meetings.". At the time I wrote a piece stating that it was potentially an attempt to buy legitimacy, but now I wonder if it was much more than that.

Of the eight members of this Board, four of them once held the same position Patricia Jones does now - President of the AACC. The board page at the Theranos website lists them as:

Susan A. Evans, PhD, FACB
Ann M. Gronowski, PhD, DABCC
Larry J. Kricka, D. Phil, FRCPath
Jack Ladenson, PhD, DABCC 

Did any of them apply their influence to get special treatment for Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes at the AACC conference? It wouldn't be surprising to make introductions, it's a common part of the role to help with connections, but getting special treatment from a scientific society and effectively endorsing the company would be going too far.

But most importantly, does Patricia Jones hope that this time next year there won't be four out of eight board members as former AACC Presidents, but five out of nine?


  1. This all makes sense now ... I couldn't figure out what Patricia's angle was for the whole debacle and shredding her reputation ... kudos for putting two and two together!

    Curious, what is your opinion of the amount/level of corruption in academia?

    1. Overall I'd say the amount of corruption in academia is pretty low - and when it happens it's rarely out-and-out lying simply to make money. More it's a post-docs not properly supervised by Profs who doctor some results or plagiarise another paper to get things done quicker, small changes to papers and submitted to multiple journals at the same time, things that typically get spotted.

      Unlike business, in academia you can't make your billions on a single large scam and then retire on the proceeds, or have those that made billions with you continue to back you. A scam in academia gets found out, eventually, by another researcher, and basically never made money in the first place! The cost of fraud times the chance of discovery vastly outweighs profit to be made from academic fraud. Academics have to think of their career, and in the end reputation is all they have - they can't lose it and continue.

      I expect Theranos to try the 'soft corruption' route of funding labs and students, equipment etc, so that research groups are a little more apprehensive to say negative things. They might get a little nastier and make large donations to endowment funds that are yearly contributions, so as to have a university administration lean on a research group to play nice. That may work in a smaller scale venture, but something as large as Theranos, as obvious, and with as huge a publicity boost as you'd get from being the group that definitively proved Theranos a fraud, that method won't fly here.

    2. Have to argue regarding corruption in academia. In the biomedical space, a majority of studies cannot be replicated in a manner described originally in published literature. The stakes may not be billions, but they are a v comfortable life style.

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