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Medical journal retracts major study into benefits of baby formula

The 1989 paper had been at the centre of a high-profile libel case earlier this year.

Image: baby bottle image via Shutterstock

ONE OF THE world’s leading medical journals has retracted a controversial study into the immune benefits of baby formula, some 26 years after it was first published.

The 1989 paper by Canadian scientist Dr Ranjit Chandra claimed that Nestlé Good Start formula could reduce infants’ risk of developing allergies.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) said it has withdrawn the once widely cited study after obtaining a copy of a damning inquiry into Chandra’s research.

The report – completed by Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in 1995 – concluded that the self-styled “father of nutritional immunology” had committed scientific misconduct.

The investigating committee found that there were “no raw data (or files) of any kind” to support the 1989 study and that it could not “identify anyone who did or remembers a significant amount of the work”.

But the university never published the investigation or notified the editors of journals that had published suspect research implicated in the inquiry.

In August, Chandra lost a $125 million libel case against Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which aired a three-part series in 2006 that accused him of committing scientific fraud and financial deception.

The BMJ received a copy of the report when it came into public domain during the course of the lawsuit.

When asked by the BMJ why it had not published details of the investigation, the university said it “was the product of a flawed investigation process and could not be relied upon”.

However, in the CBC documentary, a spokesperson for MUN said the university had failed to act on the investigation because of legal threats from Chandra.

‘Not to be trusted’

Issues surrounding Chandra’s work were identified as early as 2000, when the BMJ rejected a paper he submitted on a patented vitamin supplement that he claimed could improve memory in older people.

BMJ editors questioned Chandra’s ability to conduct the extensive tests described in the study – fears that were supported four years later by independent scientists who found evidence of serious flaws in his data.

In a statement last night, the BMJ said it was retracting the 1989 paper because of “convincing evidence” provided by the MUN report, as well as the CBC series, that Chandra’s work “is not to be trusted”.

The BMJ’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, and former editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, called for an independent public inquiry into the case, describing it as “a major failure of scientific governance”.

“This 30-year saga highlights a collective failure to defend the integrity of science,” Godlee and Smith said in an editorial.

It is shameful that the university, Canadian authorities and other scientific bodies have taken no action against Chandra and that it has been left to the mass media to expose his fraud.

Read: How I became one of Ireland’s few male midwives

Read: 10 things nobody tells you about giving birth

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Catherine Healy

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