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April 3, 2014 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

The scientific and medical potential of stem cells hold so much promise that progress in this area is widely followed with intense interest. Since pluripotent stem cells are able to differentiate into any cell type they hold the promise of leading to therapies for a wide variety of diseases and disabilities which cause human suffering and end lives prematurely. This field of research and development has attracted the efforts of large numbers of the most brilliant and talented biomedical researchers in the entire world. This raises the vexing question of why some of these brilliant and talented researchers are doing some very stupid things.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 2004 and 2005) that Hwang Woo-Suk a renowned Korean veterinarian and researcher published the first reports in Science Magazine of the derivation of pluripotent stem cells from human embryos and subsequently the successful cloning of human embryonic stem cells. Hwang was a national hero. However these studies were recognized in 2006 as being the result of fraud.  I remember wondering then, just as I am wondering now, how someone could risk all that they had earned by committing such blatant fraud. How could they not realize that misconduct in such important work would be discovered and punished. I do not get it.

This is why it seemed so shocking to see another major scandal arise over the past several months in the stem cell world.  One of the central problems in obtaining pluripotent stem cell for both clinical and research uses was how to obtain them without the concerns which came from obtaining stem cells from actual human embryos. Even those who did not share the ethical concerns of deriving them were inhibited by the prohibitions and limitations advocated by those with these concerns. Techniques have been utilized which induced these by genetic manipulations but these seemed different somehow and included oncogene activation.

The recent findings published in Nature just this past January seemed to provide a workable solution that was not plagued by the ethical and technical concerns of earlier methods. The evidence indicated that exposure of differentiated cell to mildly acidic conditions elicited dedifferentiation to a pluripotent phenotype. Now, only months later, it has been determined that first author Haruko Obokata manipulated data in a purposefully misleading way and she has been pronounced guilty of research misconduct.

This field is now tarnished by another major case of research misconduct. This provides yet another reason for people to be skeptical of science and scientists. Science depends, to an important extent, on trust. Scientists understand that the uncovering of this behavior mean that to some degree the process of depending on verification works. To the rest of the world this will just be evidence of more dishonesty in science.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

1 comments | Topics: Research Ethics, Research Integrity, Stem Cell Research

Comments

VorpelSword

VorpelSword wrote on 04/04/14 10:46 AM

In any human endeavor, especially when there is fame or money to be gained,
some will seek the fame or the money over the endeavor itself. Scientists as a group may be more trustworthy than others because much science is done with little chance of temporal rewards. But, as long as people are involved, there will be misconduct. To view the expected failings of some as tarnishing the reputation of the many is naive, but readily used to support preconceived agendas.

Cases like those mentioned, serve as a reminder that advancing scientific knowledge is a communal endeavor, not the cumulative quanta of individuals..

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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