Mandeep Mehra and Sapan Desai (R) | MIGIMS & Researchgate
Mandeep Mehra and Sapan Desai (R) | MIGIMS & Researchgate
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New Delhi: By his own admission, Mandeep Mehra, a celebrated US-based heart specialist, was eager to make a contribution to the flurry of research underway to resolve one of the biggest medical crises mankind has faced in decades.

Instead, he ended up stoking one of the biggest medical research scandals in recent years. Mehra is one-half of an Indian-origin duo now courting the infamy of having had two pieces of research withdrawn within an hour of each other.

The other half of this twosome is Sapan Desai, a US-based vascular surgeon who also founded Surgispere, a little-known healthcare data analytics company

The two are the common denominators in as many studies that have come under the lens for data that has been described as dodgy. Both were published in reputed peer-reviewed journals, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine

One of them, carried by the former, made headlines worldwide with its alarming conclusion that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), an antimalarial drug being explored as a treatment for Covid-19, was linked to higher mortality among patients in a study involving 96,000 subjects. 

The study was peer-reviewed and seemed credible on account of the vast pool of subjects. It led the World Health Organization (WHO) to pause the HCQ arm of its giant Solidarity trial, which is aimed at finding an effective treatment for Covid-19 (the decision has been reversed), but soon there were questions. Lots of them. 

Before long, the questions took the form of a surge of scepticism, and the conclusions of the study seemed increasingly to be on weak footing. 

With the researchers struggling to answer the doubts, the study was finally withdrawn at the behest of three of its four authors. Another study based on data from the same source, Desai’s Surgisphere, and carried out by Mehra, among others, met the same fate.

Desai, for whom the controversy is but the latest in a series, had defended his data-collection methods in the days before the studies were withdrawn, but has maintained silence since. Mehra, however, has offered an unqualified apology. 

“It is now clear to me that in my hope to contribute this research during a time of great need, I did not do enough to ensure that the data source was appropriate for this use,” he said in a statement emailed to ThePrint by his spokesperson. “For that, and for all the disruptions – both directly and indirectly – I am truly sorry.”


Also Read: How the humble hydroxychloroquine has become India’s unlikely new global strategic asset


The two studies

Apart from Desai and Mehra, The Lancet study was authored by Frank Ruschitzka of the University Heart Center, University Hospital, Switzerland, and Amit N. Patel of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Utah, and HCA Research Institute, US, another researcher of Indian origin. 

Authors of The New England Journal of Medicine study, which tapped data from Surgisphere to look into the effect of blood pressure medication on Covid-19 cases, also included SreyRam Kuy of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, Timothy D. Henry of Christ Hospital, Ohio, and Patel.

On Wednesday, The Lancet and the NEJM published an “expression of concern” regarding the two studies. This came after more than a hundred scientists, in an open letter to The Lancet’s editor, questioned the veracity of the HCQ study by raising questions about the data used.

As the controversy peaked, the three other authors of the study asked Surgisphere for a re-analysis and also employed an independent auditor, Mehra said in his statement. 

“On June 3, (the auditors) informed us that Surgisphere would not be able to transfer the data required to conduct this audit ‘because of agreements with its clients and the fact that the documents contain confidential information’,” he added. 

After being unable to verify the data, Mehra asked both journals to retract the studies.


Also Read: Lancet withdraws controversial study linking HCQ to higher Covid death risk over data issues


From Maharashtra to Massachusetts

Mandeep R. Mehra’s renown precedes him. An alumnus of the 1983 batch of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Sevagram, Maharashtra, he is currently a professor at Harvard Medical School and serves as medical director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Heart and Vascular Center in Boston, US. 

His academic specialty is advanced heart failure, mechanical circulatory support and cardiac transplantation, a field where he is credited with over 400 research publications. 

He completed his residency in internal medicine at Mount Carmel Medical Centre in Columbus, Ohio, following which he moved to New Orleans, the culture and party paradise, where he served as a fellow at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital. Here, he went on to become the head of heart failure and transplant, and the vice-chair of cardiology. 

Among his peers, Mehra is described as a star of his field, a man of deep intelligence.

Dr Hector Ventura, who worked as a fellow at the facility with Mehra and has known him for 25 years, said he was “not only a great physician but also a great researcher”.

“He was one of our first heart failure and heart transplant trainees at Ochsner. He was the best fellow that I have ever had,” said Ventura, the head of the cardiomyopathy & heart transplantation section at the hospital. 

Ventura, who has co-authored over 50 papers with Mehra, said he is “the most intelligent person I know”. “I have enjoyed lengthy conversation about many subjects throughout our careers and he made a better person and doctor. Innovative… and his energy is contagious,” he added. 

Dr Chip Lavie, another of Mehra’s colleagues from his time at the hospital, described him as “one of the brightest” in the field. 

In 2012, Mehra was appointed as professor at Harvard Medical School, where he became the William Harvey Distinguished Chair in Advanced Cardiovascular Medicine. 

Mehra also served as president of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, a professional organisation headquartered in Texas, in 2008-2009. 

According to the website of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Mehra has been instrumental in defining the “obesity paradox” — a line of research that claims it might be healthier to be overweight — in heart failure.  

Mehra is the current editor-in-chief of the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation, the official publication of the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation.

In his apology for the controversial studies, Mehra said he had always “performed my research in accordance with the highest ethical and professional guidelines”. 

“However, we can never forget the responsibility we have as researchers to scrupulously ensure that we rely on data sources that adhere to our high standards,” he added in his statement.

To his colleagues, his admission is just another testament to his integrity. 

“[His] having retracted the manuscript because he did not rust the process of the data demonstrates his integrity,” Ventura said.


Also Read: Lancet alert: ‘Serious scientific questions’ raised on HCQ study that led to WHO trial pause


Not Desai’s first controversy

Dr Sapan S. Desai’s name is the first that flashes past as you scroll down the website of his Chicago-based data analytics firm Surgisphere.

Beside a photograph of a smiling child on a hospital bed, clutching a teddy bear, a blob of text seeks to explain why Desai set up Surgisphere: “…To harness the power of data analytics and improve the lives of as many people as possible.”

But it is the very essence of this firm, its stated prowess for data analytics, that has now come into question.

The internet doesn’t offer much information about Desai’s roots. However, much has been said about his career in medicine. 

A biography of Desai on a brochure for IHF Brisbane, the 42nd World Hospital Congress in 2018, where he was a speaker, identifies him as an MD, PhD and MBA. Surgisphere, the profile states, is a “healthcare data analytics company with hundreds of clients around the world”.

Desai is believed to have held multiple physician leadership roles at US facilities such as Southern Illinois University. But he has had his share of controversies too. 

According to a report in The Guardian, he has been named in three medical malpractice suits in the US, two of them as recent as November 2019.

In one case, he and Northwest Community Hospital in Illinois have been accused of being “careless and negligent”, leading to permanent damage following surgery. Desai resigned from the hospital on 10 February 2020 “for personal reasons”. He, however, refuted the allegation in an interview with the Scientist, saying the lawsuit against him was “unfounded”. 

Desai established Surgisphere in 2008 as a medical education company that published textbooks. Despite its apparent makeover as a data analytics firm, an investigation by The Guardian found that its employees do not have a scientific or statistical background, but mention expertise in strategy, copywriting, leadership and acquisition.

In his statement, Mehra said he was introduced to Dr Sapan Desai and Surgisphere, which “purported to have data from hospitals around the world that could be leveraged to answer important public health questions posed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

In the days before the studies were withdrawn, Desai was in a media overdrive as he firefought questions about his small team handling tonnes of data from dozens of hospitals (169 for the NEJM study, over 600 in the case of The Lancet study) located in multiple countries. 

In an interview with The Guardian, he said Surgisphere uses a “great deal of artificial intelligence and machine learning to collect data”.

He reiterated the claims in an interview with Bloomberg. “It is important to understand the nature of this database,” he added. “We are not responsible for the source data, thus the labour intensive task required for exporting the data from an EHR (electronic health record), converting it into the format required by our data dictionary, and fully de-identifying the data is done by the healthcare partner. Surgisphere does not reconcile languages or coding systems.” 

ThePrint has approached Desai for comments, while also emailing queries to a researcher he has often collaborated with and a colleague from his surgery residency at Duke University back in 2011.

This report will be updated when they respond.


Also Read: Surgisphere, the Indian-American founded tiny data firm at the centre of HCQ-Lancet storm


 

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58 Comments Share Your Views

58 COMMENTS

  1. Most popular are pseudo intellectuals doctors and scientists.Quality of research shows black hole at global level.Unethical trial on humans is a slur on intelligentsia.

  2. All this is consequence of overzealous editorial boards of mighty medical journals comfortably cocooned in their influential position. And forgetting to uphold famous insight of Adam Smith – Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm & superstition.
    Much touted culture of “publish or perish” has created ‘Rock-Star’ authors, who can get anything published.
    Impact of ‘Big Pharma’ on what gets published in medical journals is well documented.
    Covid-19 is an illness which is into 6 months of its existence. We still don’t know anything about ‘Patient Zero’ in China. There is still significant dearth of data about how this illness affects different segments of humanity: age, sex, race, nutrition, prior immune status, co-morbidities – common and uncommon – etc. Similarly, totality of its presenting symptoms, their natural course, responsiveness to available treatments, etc. is largely unknown. Yet scientific / medical journals are flooded with studies on Covid-19, which is very enthusiastic.
    These uncertainties have been further compounded by politicization at global level.

  3. The Lancet has long turned political. It wrote an article on the ammendment to Article 370. Now Karma has come to bite it.

    • So you saying it’s a co-op by these Indo-dominated professionals?

      Damn…!

      Reprehensible. Totally reprehensible.
      No wonder the masses are still under the hold of some kind of world neo-religion in 2020.

  4. Gone through this article but found nothing serious article written.
    If India has to come up with a devastating apology face, no one can imagine what is going to happen.
    Is it an advertisement of both about success stories! There is no point saying so if someone is fraud.
    This article is not satisfactory.

  5. My promoter of Ph D used to say there are 3 types of lies : white lie, blue lie and statistical lies.
    But astonished to see the ethics of people of the Golden States of India.
    Shame on their tendency of quick bucks ! As diamond traders or Share Market operators or in politics or in religious business – it is a shame !

  6. I think peer review should be proper, Desai like elements must be Punished as seriouly as possible. Lancet and NEJM must improve the peer review aspect of scrutiny. Medical research must be trustworthy. It is related to LIFE. Comments about race and ethinicity should be better avoided. One fake research cannot spoil the work of thousands of dedicated research workers………..Research solved many issues in medical practice.

    • Bwahahahahaha!

      Amusing, isn’t it?

      That you would be making the very same comments if the Indians would’ve been replaced with Pakistanis or worse, any “M”-majority nationals in a hypothetical:

      N-O-T

  7. It must be the brown people’s fault.
    When white people do it, it is science, and when brownies do, then its a scandal.
    This is not the first time, look at what happened to Rajat Gupta.

  8. It seems to me that the evidence of fraud points to Sapan Desai who hides behind “confidential agreement” as an excuse to not share reasonable requested information on his raw data. Remember Theranos CEO who used “trade secrets” as an excuse to not share reasonable info on their Edison device? Desai’s technology is his database in which nobody can validate it. 99.9% scam risk right here. Red flags all over the place 🚩. I trust Dr. Mehra’s apology and his good intentions when he requested the articles be retracted immediately to reduce further harm from the study results. He prevented a catastrophic, Andrew Wakefield level of harm to humanity worldwide by acknowledging his mistake honestly and quickly.

  9. Lancet should ban this mafia of bogus article authors. Now it’s proved that plagrism, bogus data, data manipulation and gift AUTHORSHIP is quite common among authors from India.
    Lancet is to be saluted for its article about Indian atrocities in Indian occupied KASHMIR

    • thats cos he has realised the truth …. n he is no more kambhakt like the paid presstitutes of rubbishkumar n the pedo jihadi combine of sidd varadrajan or arfa khanum or randi ayyub … or brahminical high caste morons like abhisar sharma ….durka butt or Gu Ha or other frustrated morons … he is relaying teh truth and its good over the paid presstitutes of opposition scumbags who are so low iq thta it does not make any sense

  10. ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) has recommended use of HCQ HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE to Doctors and Healthcare Professionals dealing with COVID-19 Patients . ….These 2 Clowns should have known the ICMRs Recommendations of HCQ before doctoring Report and bring a bad name to Indian Doctors questioning their Integrity.

  11. What is the conclusion.

    HCQ can now be useful for the Pandamic, which the Author had to reiterate.

    Just like that publishing some waste fellows mischievous admission not sufficient.

    What punishment they will get.

  12. Another abhorrent case from the Brigham Hospital. What ever needs to be done to stay on the top, even faking data is ok for as long as the tenure is not in question… His apology is NOT valid and NOT ACCEPTED! Shame on you, shame!!!!

  13. Looks like Dr Desai has a bigger role in this mess as Dr Mehra’s knowledge and reputation are high and not suspect. The reputation of the venerated Lancet has been sullied. Did not the peer reviewers notice any abnormality now being pointed out by everyone?

  14. Where there is alie,cheating fooling people or looting gujju is everywhere be politics , industries,administration ,judiciary or bussiness.

  15. This report is exactly for what? To bring their scandal into light or to advertise their career excellence. Got confused.

  16. I think there is more stink than meets the nose with this Desai chap. It appears that he is in cahouts with some pharma giants and doing the ‘dirty work’ in exchange for moolah! Poor Mehra got caught with his pants down in his hurry to grab some Corona ‘limelight’! And it all is easy as cake walk if your ‘research findings’ show something that India has hit upon as bad or ‘uscientific’, even outright dangerous! It is a flavour liked so much by majority of premier journals and western publishing houses controlled by the MNC giant pharma firms. It’s time this unhealthy nexus is completely exposed by the Indian government and its scientific establishments. If in the process some ambitious, ‘brilliant’, fast track careers of the famous are extinguished and trashed, so be it. It will serve well in the betterment of the entire humanity.

  17. Instead of giving details about there research shortcoming & lacuna , of such doctors but only to criticize the whole research & labeling as SCANDAL is not fair to malign the image & there hard work in research……after all this is PRINT….every body knows….

  18. These fake researchers should be hanged. How many people have been killed because of their fake research papers?

  19. So, we should give capital punishment to these scamsters who put a scare into people and governments for not prescribing the medicine to the victims who would have lived if the same had been provided.

  20. So, we should give capital punishment to these people who put a scare into people and governments of not prescribing the medicine to the victims who would have lived if the same was provided.

  21. Desai, Mehta, Parekh, Nirav modi, are these specialise in scandals, frauds and cheating. ?
    I now doubt the pictured glorious future of my society and country.

  22. Dear Author, you wrote an long article but couldn’t depict what was the exact scandal rather it seems you ended up writing their biographies. Please stick to the points.

  23. Is it by accident that Dr. Mehra’s hospital is doing 2 trials with remdesvir while he trashes HCQ? I think not. Both these doctors are dirty.

  24. Indians are available to highest bidder anyday. Big pharma don’t like hqc because it is cheap so they hired lowest scums to publish faulty study.

    I hope these quacks end up in jail for long long time… but sadly no laws against faulty studies. But talk about side effects of vaccine and you end up getting your licence revoked and may even be put behind bars for decades. Big pharma is worst drug dealer in history of civilization

    • Ghjaratis are business community.
      But not the community of blood sucking like service class who don’t do any work without taking money even on death also they want money .
      Change your perception for gujaratis.

  25. HCQ is with us for about 80 years.
    its effect on heart rate, if given in prescribed dosages appears to be safe.
    This controversy about this drug in Covid-19 patients, may have other dimensions.
    This needs to be probed.

  26. The role of Lancet in all of this is a bit too spooky to be ignored. It has already tarnished its image among Indian medical diaspora by exposing its non-medical views on Art. 370 last year. I mean which scientific journal does that? And that too of such high repute! Its only harming its prestige !

    • Speak for your yourself, dammit!

      Or..

      …Are you saying all medical-practitioners are as intellectually-challenged as the rest of the masses?

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