Professor Dame Sally Davies admits central role in Alzheimergate

Professor Dame Sally Davies admits central role in Alzheimergate

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Department of Health's chief medical officer, has admitted to being at the centre of "Alzheimergate" claims of government interference in the communication of significant research.

In an open letter addressed to "science correspondents" she owned up to speaking to the editor of The Lancet medical journal approximately her worry that a sensitive up-and-coming study might be misreported.

The paper, after published in the journal Nature, raised the possibility of "seeds" of an Alzheimer's brain protein being transmitted through certain medical procedures.

Signs of the beta-amyloid protein were found in the brains of seven patients aged 36 to 51 who had died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) after receiving growth hormone from the pituitary glands of dead people.

None had a genetical predisposition to Alzheimer's & they were too young to have developed the disease naturally.

Professor John Collinge & his team concluded that Alzheimer's "seeds" had probably been transferred with the growth hormone along with the CJD infective agent.

But there were wider implications deserving further investigation, including the possibility that similar "seeds" might accidentally contaminate surgical instruments & be transmitted by other medical procedures.

The scientists made it clear there was no question of Alzheimer's being "caught" like the usual cold.

An editorial published in The Lancet said that on September 5 the journal was alerted by "a UK Government source" to the impending publication of the Nature paper.

The source was "anxious approximately the likely media coverage & the potential for a public health scare" & "urged us to consider what we might do to reduce further the risk of a scare".

In its editorial, entitled Alzheimergate? When Miscommunication Met Sensationalism, The Lancet was highly critical of the way the story was covered by the media.

It said the research did not provide evidence of transmission of Alzheimer's disease, echoing a statement issued earlier by Dame Sally.

Later a group of national science journalists filed a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the Department of Health seeking to establish the identity of the source.

In her letter, Dame Sally said: " The official FoI response that you will receive from the Department shortly is that no records are held on this matter, which is true.

"However I wanted to let you know that I spoke to Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, following a chance meeting in an airport on September 5 2015 as I was going abroad.

"During this brief discussion I made reference to the then-upcoming Nature article, specifically to my worry approximately the potential for misreporting of the research, not the research itself.

"As Chief Medical Officer, it is my duty to raise concerns approximately possible misreporting of health issues that might cause public alarm.

"In the event, the majority of resulting articles by yourselves & colleagues did highlight the preliminary nature of the research & the fact that it is not possible to 'catch' Alzheimer's disease.

"I was very glad of that, & appreciative of the close attention paid to the detail of the research by science correspondents.

"I share with you an objective to protect the interests of legitimate research & ensure that the conclusions of research are reported fairly.

"I appreciate your work in this area."

The Independent newspaper ran a story quoting sources who said Dame Sally had approached Dr Horton "to discredit the study in the eyes of the public".

If this claim is true it means Dame Sally has committed a serious breach of confidentiality.

Nature places a strict embargo on yet-to-be published studies prohibiting any approaches to third parties unless "solely for soliciting informed comment".

In this case, Dame Sally spoke to the editor of a rival journal.

Dr Horton & Nature have not made any comment.

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