Saturday, February 24, 2007

Stem Cell Research Misconduct... Again

Could the stem cell field PLEASE get its act together?

In a not-so-covered story last week, the New Scientist reported that ground-breaking research from the adult stem cell field may have been falsified. They did not go so far to claim research misconduct, and no action has been taken by the journals. The basic scenario is this:
  • In 2002 Catherine Verfaillie (pronounced Ver-fi-yee) described in Nature magazine a population of adult stem cells that can differentiate into most cells in the body, including brain and heart cells. She publishes separately that these cells can be isolated from the blood, heart and brain.
  • Immediately, politicians opposing embryonic stem cell research touted this finding as proof that ESC research is unnecessary.
  • For 5 years, many of the world's leading stem cell biologists tried to reproduce this monumental finding. Several even traveled to Minnesota to learn the technique. Along the way, reports surfaced that the Verfaillie group even had trouble reproducing their own work.
  • The New Scientist (for some reason at this late date) looked into this issue in depth and found that 6 of the graphs presented in the Nature paper were also published in the other article.
  • After this was discovered, an expert panel (I wonder who this was) re-examined the data and found it 'flawed.' Strangely, the flawed data has nothing to do with the duplicated data. Verfaillie claims that the doubly printed figures were the result of a clerical mix-up.

What went wrong here? Let's start with the basics: the same figure cannot be printed twice in different articles without proper citation. This is called plagiarism. It doesn't matter if it was a clerical error, it needs to be called what it is.

At the next level we have the question of reproducibility. Like my colleague JG likes to point out, scientific articles are a little like muffin recipes. If the recipe doesn't include the very specific ingredients, how and when to mix them and instructions for baking and cooling, the likely outcome are dry and lumpy excuses for Otis Spunkmeyers. The New Scientist article leads us to believe that this adult stem cell recipe is so lacking, that the original chefs could not even get it right the second time. (The nagging question is whether they only were able to do this once, so used the same data twice.)

Finally, we have some questions about the unchecked progress of science. I am not referring to doomsday scenarios, just that the stem cell field is sooo hot that careful science is sacrificed for flashy findings. This is the result of zealousness positioned where skepticism should reign. (For all of you editors of major scientific journals out there reading this post, I'm talking to you.)

Something about this situation sounds really familiar... it sounds just like another report involving amniotic stem cells' abilities to regenerate every tissue in the body.

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