Why so Much Fake, Unduplicable Stem Cell Research?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


May 20, 2014

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Hi. I am Art Caplan, from the NYU Langone Medical Center, Division of Medical Ethics. What is going on in the field of regenerative medicine with respect to stem cell research? We have recently had yet another in a long series of scandals involving claims about the ability to manipulate stem cells in ways that turned out to be utterly untrue and fraudulent. In this case, a scientist in Japan said that she was able to make adult stem cells revert to embryo-like stem cells with some pretty simple chemical exposures. It was announced in leading journals and covered extensively by the media. Then she had to admit that no one could duplicate what she had done and confessed that she had made it up.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the stem cell field. Going back all the way to right after Dolly the sheep was cloned, people were trying to clone human embryos to see if they could get cloned human embryos from stem cells.. A group in Korea announced that they had made the first cloned human embryos. Nobody could replicate what they did, and they ultimately had to retract their claims published in leading scientific journals that they had cloned human embryos. Stem cell research seems again and again to go off the rails when it comes to the ethics of research. What is going on and why is that so?

I think there are a couple of reasons why this particular area has gotten itself in so much hot water. One is that there is a relative shortage of funding. Because of the controversial nature of cloning -- getting stem cells from human embryos -- some avenues of funding have dried up, and it puts pressure on people to come up with other ways to try to make human stem cells. With less funding, there is more pressure. Sometimes people cut corners. I think that can lead to trouble.

Another problem in the stem cell field is that if you can come up with a way to produce human stem cells without sacrificing or cloning embryos from humans, you are going to find yourself being a hero to the world. That is what happened in Japan. There was so much pressure to come up with an alternative to using human embryos to generate stem cells, that if anybody said that they had done it, people wanted to believe that it was true. When we are looking at science, we have a tendency to think that it is a breakthrough, but there are no breakthroughs. There are only breakthroughs that are confirmed.

There is a lesson here: Until somebody replicates and until somebody can show that they can also do what has been alleged, there isn't a breakthrough. There is only confirmation and then breakthroughs. I think we have to be a lot more careful -- both in science and in media coverage -- before we start saying, "Aha -- here is a single study, a single report, a presentation. Now we have shown that something can be done." It doesn't work that way. It has to be duplicated before we can say that it is true.

Another major problem in the stem cell field is that the number of people doing research in this area has shrunk. It is obviously of keen interest to come up with regenerative medicine solutions to all kinds of healthcare problems. I think a lot of post-docs and graduate students are saying, "I am not sure that I want to set my career track into a field that is sometimes controversial and where funding may be dipping." That may mean that there are fewer people to watch one another. It is not a big field, so maybe part of the reason that it keeps getting in trouble is less ability to do peer review. There are fewer mentors and fewer students because it is seen as an area that is too controversial to stake one's career in.

I think a combination of factors is getting stem cell research in trouble: shortage of money, our willingness to look for breakthroughs because we want them so badly without demanding the kind of replication and duplication that is a key part of science, and small numbers leading to less peer review.

I am Art Caplan, at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.


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