Heard the one about the professor who jokingly gave the two osteopathic physicians a bottle of snake oil? Well, they didn’t think it was funny.
In fact, the co-founders of the Chicago-based American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) decided to sue S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Thomas Perls, associate professor of geriatrics at Boston University, for $240 million. According to the defamation complaint filed in an Illinois court, Olshansky and Perls conspired to undermine A4M’s scientific credibility and in turn to harm the business prospects of Ronald Klatz and Robert Goldman, the two founders. The result, according to the complaint, was several professional disappointments, including the loss of a $20 million contract for Medical Development Management, an Illinois corporation in which Klatz and Goldman are the principal shareholders.
It is not the first time Olshansky and Perl have criticized A4M, although they maintain that their criticisms are based in science. In fact, the two guest edited an issue of The Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences that was devoted to clearing up the hype about anti-aging remedies. It was at a conference on anti-aging that Olshansky gave a bottle of vegetable oil, labeled “snake oil,” to Klatz and Goldman, who were not there. That honor was added to the "Silver Fleece" award for "the most outrageous or exaggerated claims about slowing or reversing human aging," for which Olshansky and Perls helped select the winner.
Olshansky said he is by no means against searching for ways to slow or stop aging. In fact, he has conducted aging research himself. "I’m a strong supporter of anti-aging research," he said. “But it’s my job to protect public health, and inform the public about the truth of what we know and what we don’t know. Right now, the claim that we can stop or reverse aging isn’t really much of an issue for debate among serious scientists.”
Among A4M’s remedies that worry him is human growth hormone. In one of his books, Klatz called HGH proven for age-reversal. HGH has been shown to temporarily slow some signs of aging, but some research suggests reason to be concerned about possible side effects.
Experts said the case is an uncommon attack on professors speaking about issues within their field of study. Because of the cost of litigation, lawsuits "can have a chilling effect on academic research," said Jonathan Knight, director of the Office of Academic Freedom and Tenure at the American Association of University Professors, who said cases like this are "as rare as hen’s teeth."
Knight said he was surprised that the lawsuit did not name the universities, which “have deeper pockets,” as defendants as well. But other experts thought the whole point might be to scare the professors with the cost of litigation. “Even the cost of the discovery process can be extremely expensive,” said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Center in New York, who said she is not aware of other cases just like this.
The University of Illinois at Chicago is backing its professor in the case, and footing the legal bill. "The university has become involved because it is an issue of academic freedom,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman. "Professor Olshansky is doing his job … to search for the truth and speak it. That is the purpose of a research university. The university is defending its purpose.”
Klatz and Goldman chose not to comment on the case, but their lawyer disagreed strongly with Burton’s sentiment that Olshansky was doing his job. “This is not a case about an ‘academic’ debate,” said Sigmund S. Wissner-Gross. “The case is about alleged conduct by two individuals far removed from the classroom and not in their professional capacities.”
“That’s funny,” Olshansky said of the claim that he was acting outside his role as a professor and researcher. “This was an international conference on anti-aging in Australia,” he said of the venue for the silver fleece award, “in a session devoted to anti-aging, the hype and the reality. I couldn’t be anymore within what I do.”
The complaint also mentions Olshansky’s visit to an A4M conference in Las Vegas in 2003. It says that Olshansky met the executive vice president of Market America Inc., and that he denounced several of their products as unproven and useless, threatening to make his statements public, when he found out Klatz and Goldman had helped formulate them. Olshansky said he recalls the meeting. “It was a friendly three-way conversation with me, him, and the [professor from UCLA] who was running the meeting.”
Olshansky said he asked his typical two questions: 1) What does the product do? 2) Where’s the scientific evidence? When the Market America representative told Olshansky there had not been sufficient clinical trials, Olshansky said he told him “maybe it would be a good idea to do that.” Olshansky said the the man then asked if he would do it. “I said that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. It was a friendly inquiry, trying to evaluate the evidence, just as it should be in science. Of course, Klatz and Goldman were not there.” Market America later backed out of its contract with Klatz and Goldman, who claim in court papers that the products were tested.
Klatz and Goldman first sued Olshansky and Perls last fall, but the case was dismissed in the spring, according to Olshansky. The new case is a modified version of the original.
Olshansky said he has received strong personal support from many colleagues, and that he will not stop speaking out. "We will not be intimidated," he said. "This is the pursuit of a scientific issue by scientists. I am a professor of public health and that’s part of what I do. I will continue to speak freely for the rest of my life."