In December 2019, when Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez appointed molecular biologist Mabel Gisela Torres Torres to be the first head of the newly created Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, only a few of the nation’s researchers knew who she was.
Torres was “a total stranger,” recalls Gustavo Quintero Hernández, dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Del Rosario University.
Now, Torres is obscure no more—and finds herself at the center of controversy that has included calls for her resignation.
The storm began on 10 January, 1 day before Torres took office, when the newspaper El Espectador published a story raising questions about her research record. The story reported a claim Torres made, during a broadcast interview in August 2019, that she had essentially run an informal, uncontrolled clinical trial with cancer patients. Torres said she had given a brew made from a fungus she was studying to patients with cervical, breast, and brain cancer, and that their health had improved. She didn’t seek formal ethical, safety, and efficacy reviews prior to starting the work because it would have taken too long, and because she believed the fungus posed no threat to human health, she told the same paper the next day. She also said she hasn’t published the extensive data she has claimed to collect from such studies “as an act of rebellion,” although she plans to submit an application to patent her findings.
Torres’s remarks drew immediate condemnation from many Colombian scientists, with more than six scientific and medical societies issuing statements of concern. “We cannot accept derogatory attitudes in relation to the scientific method, the laxity with ethical codes of scientific experimentation, and of disdain for the process of publication and peer review,” said the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences in a statement.
“We can only regret that the course of how to do science in our country has been left in the hands of pseudoscience,” said the Colombian Association of Medical Faculties (ASCOFAME) in a statement.
Some researchers believe Torres should step down. “We want her to resign,” says Juan Manuel Anaya, an immunologist at Del Rosario University. Her “act of offering a hope for patients with cancer has to be criticized,” he says, because it was “unethical and eventually dangerous.” He was part of the Misión Internacional de Sabios, an advisory group of 47 members of the national and international scientific community that helped set goals for the new ministry.
Torres did not respond to requests for comment from ScienceInsider. But on 30 January she told the newspaper El Tiempo that she would not resign. “I have always believed that [being appointed minister] is no accident,” she said.
In an earlier statement, Torres defended her work, which focused on the taxonomy, genetics, and bioactive compounds of fungi in the genus Ganoderma. “At no time have I stated in a simplistic way that this species is the cure against cancer,” she wrote in the 18 January statement. “I have not offered a medicine, let alone commercialized it. I have rigorously observed the ethics protocols established for scientific experimentation in general and those that apply specifically in my disciplinary field.”
The controversy had disheartened many researchers who just 1 year ago were celebrating a successful push to create Colombia’s first science ministry. “It has been very frustrating. … We hoped that we get started on the right foot,” says Gabriela Delgado Murcia, an immunologist at the National University of Colombia, Bogotá.
“It’s very astonishing that a person who has difficulty [adhering to] the scientific method is the person that will lead the science of this country,” says physician Quintero Hernández, president of the board of ASCOFAME.
Others are withholding judgment. Laura Guzmán Dávalos, who was Torres’s Ph.D. adviser at the University of Guadalajara, described Torres as a “brilliant student” and notes that cell and mouse studies have suggested that metabolites in the fungi Torres studied have potential as a cancer treatment. And she says that although she is not aware of any clinical studies in humans, “I don’t think it’s a bad idea” that Torres gave her fungi brew to patients. The fungi are meant to complement, not replace, traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, she notes. She herself takes a supplement derived from fungi, Dávalos says, and many professors at her university give the supplements to cancer patients.
Marine biologist Juan Armando Sánchez Muñoz of the University of Los Andes, who was also a member of the Misión Internacional de Sabios, says he wishes Torres would be more emphatic on her comments on the scientific method and medical ethics. But he also notes that, in her current position, her job isn’t to do science but to administrate research programs and funding. “We have to give her chance to demonstrate that she can do it,” he says.