IVF-prayer study raises doubts

Journal withdraws study involving psychic researcher under house arrest from Web site

By | June 14, 2004

The Journal of Reproductive Medicine has withdrawn from its Web site a September 2001 study that demonstrated the benefits of prayer on fertility treatments, following recent concerns raised by the research community about the validity of the results. One of the three authors of the paper is a lawyer and psychic researcher who last month pleaded guilty in a Pennsylvania court to a number of charges, including using phony identities and defrauding the cable company Adelphia Communications of more than $1 million.

Daniel Wirth, the lawyer and psychic researcher, is currently under house arrest in California. He and Rogerio Lobo and Kwang Cha—both at Columbia University at the time of the report was published—found in a double-blind study that couples were twice as likely to conceive using in vitro fertilization (IVF)–embryo transfer if strangers from other countries prayed for their success.

Cha is no longer at Columbia and now runs a fertility clinic in Los Angeles, according to the New York Sun. Lobo, who did not respond to requests for an interview, currently serves on the Journal of Reproductive Medicine's editorial advisory board.

Bruce Flamm, an obstetrician/gynecologist based at Kaiser Permanente and the University of California at Irvine, told The Scientist he had doubts about the study the moment he read it. "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence," he said, but the methods used were "bewildering," requiring different tiers of prayer groups asking for different outcomes, rather than a simple prayer/no prayer design.

Flamm said that none of the IVF couples provided informed consent, and a quick Internet search revealed that Daniel Wirth has been involved in numerous paranormal publications.

Since reading the study, Flamm has sent numerous letters to the journal and Lobo and Cha about his concerns, which he said were essentially ignored.

Flamm, who believes the study could be completely fabricated, said that the only "honorable" response from the journal is to fully retract the article, admit the mistake, and explain how the article was ever published.

Although The Scientist's calls to the journal went unanswered, the journal's managing editor, Donna Kessel, told the Sun that the study went through a peer-review process and that the journal has since conducted its own investigation, the findings of which will likely appear in the July issue.

Gerald D. Fischbach, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Columbia, told The Scientist that the university has assembled a committee of scientists, faculty, and administration to investigate the methodology used in the study and expects to release a report within a month. "Anytime a question is raised about a study, I think we're obligated to look into it," he said.

If the committee finds that portions of the study were fabricated, Fischbach said he will decide on an appropriate penalty for the researchers involved, which could range from a full retraction of the article to requesting resignation—an admittedly "drastic step," he said.

Harold G. Koenig at the Duke University Medical Center, who studies the relationship between spirituality and health, cautioned that whether the report contains falsifications still remains unknown. "It could be a completely legitimate study," he noted. He also told The Scientist that Flamm is a "known skeptic."

Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, defended the journal by noting that journals often cannot ferret out which articles contain falsified data and have to trust what they receive from investigators. This system often works, however, because results that may pass through peer review likely won't survive replicating studies, he said. "The system has a way of self-correcting," noted Benson, who is also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

"One hears about fraudulent cases because they are so rare," Benson added. "But there are thousands of papers that go through the process each year."

In addition, every single author listed on a paper stakes his or her reputation on the fact that the research was conducted in the way described, Koenig noted. In this particular instance, "we're depending on the reputation of Cha and Lobo," he said.

Both Koenig and Benson said that they are not concerned that any fallout from this study could discredit previous, ongoing, and future investigations into the link between spirituality and health.

"If anything, it's an article like this that will point out the strength of research that has been published in the field," Benson told The Scientist.

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