Researchers who promoted an alleged cult and showcased its bizarre healing claims in published studies have embroiled one of Australia’s top universities in an academic misconduct probe.
Founded by Serge Benhayon – a former bankrupt tennis coach with no medical qualifications who claims to be the reincarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci – Universal Medicine is a multimillion-dollar enterprise with 700 mostly women followers in 15 countries.
UM practitioners are also taught by Mr Benhayon to carry out esoteric ovary massage to “help women connect back to their body”.
An ABC investigation has revealed three members of UQ’s faculty of medicine have publicly advocated for the controversial group.
Eminent medical educator John Dwyer, the former head of immunology at Yale University, said the researchers had “an unbelievable conflict of interest” as “apostles for Universal Medicine, heavily involved in the organisation and the teachings of the group”.
UM is linked to Mr Benhayon’s Way of the Livingness religion, with UM followers urged to follow his strict lifestyle instructions, from diet and sleep to sex.
Mr Benhayon’s acolytes include Christoph Schnelle, a UQ faculty of medicine researcher who was the lead author of three articles on UM health practices.
He and eight co-authors are now under scrutiny for an alleged failure to declare their roles in what has been described as “a dangerous cult” by Professor Dwyer, who is now based at the University of New South Wales.
The ABC has obtained video of four of the researchers publicly advocating UM practices, including two doctors.
Two more researchers are presenters at the Benhayon-founded College of Universal Medicine. The others are a naturopath and a psychologist who practice at UM’s Brisbane clinic, and a director of its UK-based charity.
‘Unbelievable conflict of interest’
Professor Dwyer said UM treatments represent a “pre-scientific approach to how the body works”.
“[The researchers] have let the university down badly in their fervour for promoting the benefits of Universal Medicine’s approach to treatments, which have no basis in science, couldn’t possibly be effective,” he said.
A second public advocate of UM within UQ’s faculty of medicine is an associate lecturer, Amelia Stephens. The Clayfield-based GP is listed in a research team with Mr Schnelle to conduct future clinical trials of UM back pain treatments.
They are running a public appeal to raise $40,000 for proposed trials in Australia and the United Kingdom.
However, one of the studies last year said “the lack of high-quality evidence” for the effectiveness of the UM treatment meant it was not possible to conduct the trials in Australian hospitals.
The researchers plan to run trials in two hospitals in Vietnam, where the group last month held a retreat.
Professor Dwyer said it was “fascinating just to see the range of individuals who can be attracted to cults and this sort of thinking and obviously this can affect a number of registered health professionals”.
He said they were registered on a “promise to practise evidence-based medicine” and “to desert that and promote this cultish behaviour is highly reprehensible”.
UM denies it is a cult, saying online that “interestingly, professionals from the health industry represent a disproportionately higher element of [its] student body”.
‘Wishy-washy’ penalties imposed
Health authorities have reprimanded some UM-linked doctors, including another former UQ associate, medical lecturer Sam Kim, and allied health professionals “but they’ve been very wish-washy type penalties”, Professor Dwyer said.
“These people are in a position of giving undeserved credibility to the nonsense that’s coming out of Universal Medicine,” he said.
He said there was “absolutely no evidence” to back the so-called “esoteric” techniques devised by Mr Benhayon, “which he claims can help people with myriad different conditions”.
“To put yourself in the hands of this group is to really risk your health and well-being,” Professor Dwyer said.
Mr Schnelle was also named in a court case as a financial planner to a terminally ill UM follower who gave $1.4 million to Mr Benhayon. Her children unsuccessfully challenged her will.
Journal looks at withdrawing academic articles
The Canadian-based Journal of Medical Internet Research is considering the extreme step of withdrawing the UM-related articles from publication.
JMIR‘s editorial director told UQ’s office of research integrity on March 6 that “the omission of this conflict of interest, which appears to be highly significant in this case, is a clear violation of our policies”.
“There was clearly some conflict of interest, which should have been declared but wasn’t,” the editorial director said on March 9.
The editor pressed for an update on the UQ investigation on March 22.
“We feel that if the paper should be retracted it should be done soon and we would preferably like to have the backing of UQ if we take that action,” he wrote.
UK-based BioMed Central is also investigating an article it ran where seven of the researchers stated they were “insiders in that they attend Universal Medicine events” but did not receive “any funding, reimbursement, instruction or direction of any kind from Universal Medicine or its affiliates”.
UQ ethics committees approved the studies but researchers must fully disclose conflicts of interest.
UQ confirms investigation into alleged ‘conflicts of interest’
UQ pro vice-chancellor of research Professor Mark Blows confirmed the university was investigating alleged “undeclared conflicts of interest by some researchers”.
He said the university was “recognised as a research institution of international standing that takes research integrity extremely seriously”.
“When investigations into allegations of errors or research misconduct are substantiated, the university notifies relevant academic journals, funding agencies and issues public statements as appropriate,” Professor Blows said.
Mr Schnelle denied a request for an interview, while Mr Benhayon, Dr Stephens and the other researchers did not respond to requests for comment by the ABC.