Friday, March 23, 2007

What is it with stem cell research and fraud?

Stem cell research seems to be a magnet for less than ethical researchers. It makes sense in a way - it's a new field, where there are a lot of money to be made. However, since the importance of the research is so high, you'd think that there would be more scrutiny on the research results.

The most famerous case of fraud is of course Hwang Woo Suk. His fraud might have very little direct impact on the field, but it made it harder for the rest of the scientists to seem credible (the rather large claims by some of them, certainly didn't help either).

Now, via Great White Wonder in the comments at Pharyngula, I see there is another case in the making.

Fresh questions on stem cell findings

Fresh questions surround some of the highest-profile research on adult stem cells. For the second time, New Scientist has discovered apparently duplicated data being used to describe results from different experiments in work published by a group of scientists at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

The research relates to a particular type of adult stem cell that appears to have a remarkable ability to turn into many types of tissue. This type of cell has been promoted by some activists and politicians as an alternative to human embryonic stem cells in medical research. The use of ESCs is unacceptable to some people because they can only be harvested from embryos that are destroyed in the process.

In June 2002, Catherine Verfaillie's team at Minnesota published a paper in Nature (vol 418, p 41) describing a population of stem cells from the bone marrow of mice that seemed able to grow into most of the body's tissues. This was a surprise, because adult stem cells can generally form only a narrow range of tissue types. Verfaillie's team called these cells "multipotent adult progenitor cells" or MAPCs. Other researchers have since found it difficult to replicate the work (see "A hard act to follow", below).

I have a few comments on this:

A) This shows the strength of the scientific process (including peer-review) - while the original article made it through without these questions being raised, the very fact that others are not able to replicate the results made New Scientist take a hard look at the research.

B) Note that there might be a political or religious agenda to the fraud. We are all aware of which group of people promotes this "as an alternative to human embryonic stem cells in medical research". Of course, there might also simply be a economical motivation.

C) While people can talk about a presumption of innocence, that is not relevant in this case. There are clear evidence of problems with this research - the duplicated use of data, the inability to replicate the results etc. The later might be because of bad research, but when you put it all together, it points towards fraud.

Hopefully this will put an end to the fruitless research into MAPCs, and instead lead to better stem cell research in general.

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Anonymous SLC said...

This research was played up big time by the opponents of embryonic in the US as indicating a lack of need for the latter. These same opponents, of course, went to town on the Korean scandal. Although there is little change of federal involvement in embryonic stem research here due to the opposition of the Bush administration, there are a number of states who are getting into the act, starting with California. Now that Massachusetts and Maryland have Democratic Governors, it is likely they too will get involved.

March 23, 2007 6:31 PM  

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