Who can be trusted over stem cell research?

Our resident bioethicist, Laurie Zoloth, considers the fall-out from Japan's Riken research centre's findings of misconduct by one of its scientists.

It all comes down to a question of trust. – Getty Images

The news was riveting. In late January Nature, one of the two most well-regarded international science journals, published two articles detailing research led by a Japanese scientist, Haruko Obokata, that promised a way to simply and easily convert ordinary cells into "something like” embryonic stem cells if mildly stressed by an acid or pressure - in just 30 minutes.

How did bioethicists react to the news? They understood immediately that if it were proven, it really could transform medical practice. And if true, it was a curious thing: why, if cells could be so easily reprogrammed into stem cells, didn’t it happen more – for instance, when you crushed a finger or, for that matter, drank orange juice? What kept the cells committed to their little tenacious fates? And would cells that turned back time in this way be the same thing as brand new tissue?

Next, of course, there was the disturbing ontological problem that has haunted all stem cell research in the past decade: could the technique be used to make humans? If any of my cells could be reprogrammed into any cell, what would keep researchers from restarting life from a cluster of them surrounded by others coaxed into being placenta? But really, despite all the initial promise, everyone who was familiar with stem cell research had another more disturbing question: how can you know if it is true?

'And so we were faced with a puzzle...what counts as knowledge?'

There was something familiar about all of this. In 2004, I went to Seattle to meet a gentle and thoughtful young scientist from South Korea, an outsider who had just announced that he had cloned human embryonic stem cells. I had read his Science paper and, as it turned out, was just as duped by signatures he had faked on faked consent forms as the Science reviewers were duped by his faked data and photos. The researcher, Woo Suk Hwang, personally promised patients in wheelchairs, politicians with dying wives, and thousands of envious scientists that his research was valid and carried out according to all established guidelines. It took two years, a court case, a media storm, and an international scandal before the claim was disproven.

Ironically, it was the journal Nature that had uncovered the deception and relentlessly pursued the story. Wary of the reactions, Nature announced that some irregularities had been found in the papers. The authors claimed they were a due to “mix-up” of the images. PubPeer, a science blog, raised further issues, and finally Seoul National University launched its own investigation. And so we were faced with a puzzle, what philosophers call a question of “testimony”. What counts as knowledge? Who can be trusted to tell? How can I know? This last question is from Immanuel Kant who believed that patience is needed for real knowledge: “Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee.”

In the Obokata case, truth arrived two months after the Nature reports. On 1 April the Riken institute charged Obokata with fraud and falsification, which she denies. The committee was harsh: “Dr. Obokata's actions and sloppy data management lead us to the conclusion that she sorely lacks, not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher.”

The final lesson, then, is a surprisingly optimistic one: the scientific review method, while it failed with the first journal publication, did finally work. And the call for integrity and humility is precisely what will be needed in basic research, especially when so much is at stake in stem cell science.

Related stories:
Damning report says data falsified in stem cell study

Jury out on stem cell 'breakthrough'
Acid shock for stem cells

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Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Chicago.
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