Saturday, August 23, 2014

Another setback for stem cell research

A few months ago, I wrote about two high profile papers in the field of stem cell research that were published with a great deal of fanfare, only to fall under a cloud of suspicion when other researchers were unable to replicate the initial findings. The story has taken a very sad turn indeed, so I thought a follow-up post was due.

The two papers were authored by a team from the RIKEN Institute in Japan - Dr. Haruka Obakata was the lead author - and attracted attention for demonstrating an extremely simple method of creating stem cells from normal ones, as simple as exposing cells to mechanical stimuli or bathing them in an acid solution. Elegant in their simplicity, these methods also bypassed many of the technical and ethical obstacles that stem cell researchers must contend with. Naturally, many researchers were eager to duplicate the method in their own labs, but as one lab after another failed in their attempts, scientists began to wonder if the published results were perhaps too good to be true.





The growing wave of concern was sufficient for RIKEN to institute an internal committee to investigate the studies in question. The committee found enough evidence to declare Obokata guilty of scientific misconduct for deliberately falsifying data. Obokata initially claimed her innocence, and the distraught researcher was briefly hospitalized. After a lot of negotiation with the authorities, however, she accepted the committee's ruling and agreed for the papers to be withdrawn. Early in July, Nature then officially retracted both papers.

The deeply unfortunate coda to this messy saga came with the suicide of Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, the scientist who headed the lab where Obokata worked and co-authored the two retracted papers. Under a great deal of stress, and attracting a fair bit of blame for the fraudulent science carried out under his supervision, Sasai was unable to cope. In the wake of his tragic death, Slate ran a piece looking at cases of fraud in stem cell research, and exploring why some researchers might be driven to cheat.

Some reasons are obvious. Breakthroughs in stem cell research attract the sort of high-impact articles, international headlines and generous funding that can make a scientist's career. Under tremendous pressure to produce data quickly, it's tempting to cut corners along the way. And for someone who's determined to cheat, it's disturbingly easy to fool coworkers and peer reviewers alike - unless you're standing over my shoulder watching, how do you know in what order I loaded my samples on a gel? Images can be easily manipulated using Photoshop, which is why journals have come up with rules for the use of imaging software.


Sometimes methods just fail the robustness test. Even if they work perfectly for you, they're useless if they don't also work for the lab down the hall, in another state, or another country. Methodological limitations might also be a reason for papers to be withdrawn, and should not be clubbed in with cases of outright fraud. There's also bad lab practice; Obokata claimed that some of the errors were due to sloppy record-keeping on her part. Unfortunately, this isn't an uncommon practice, and I've seen some really terrible lab notebooks during my time in grad school. Careless, yes, but fraudulent? That I'm not so sure about.

There's no doubt that bad science exerts a terrible cost not just on one lab or one field of research, but on the world at large - think of how many children have suffered from measles thanks to Andrew Wakefield. But if a scientist turns out to have faked data, how far should we go in blaming colleagues and supervisors? Isn't it too far when a well-respected scientist decides that death is a better alternative than facing the fallout from someone else's wrongdoings?


P.S. - While we're on the topic, consider exactly the opposite of the above scenario (although in a different field): a grad student brazenly fakes data, gets caught - and nothing happens. She loses her degree, sure, but still gets a job, her supervisor remains unaffected, and the university in question refuses to discuss anything about the case. I present to you the infamous Sames-Sezen saga

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