Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Art Caplan on Fake Stem Cell Research: 'Off-the-Rails Syndrome?'

One of the more prominent bioethicists in the nation, Art Caplan, is asking,
“Why so Much Fake, Unduplicable Stem Cell Research?”

Caplan weighed in on Medscape.com today, citing the STAP flap involving Japanese and American researchers as well as a scandal involving a false but widely accepted – for a time -- claim that a Korean scientist had cloned human embryos.

Caplan said,
“Stem cell research seems again and again to go off the rails when it comes to the ethics of research.”

He continued,
“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.”

Caplan said,
“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.'”

Caplan said,
“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.”

Our thoughts: There is no doubt some spectacular fraud has surfaced in stem cell research. But the problem of replication within stem cell research may not be entirely out of line with problems elsewhere in science. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote last fall about a study by Amgen that examined 53 “landmark papers” in cancer research and blood biology. Only five could be proved valid, a shocking result, according to Amgen. Similar results were turned up by Bayer in Germany, Hiltzik said.

Additionally, as Caplan notes, the stem cell community is small and the hype is grand. With stupendous expectations come the likelihood that every missed shot – fraudulent or not – becomes an equally stupendous failure that is colored by suspicions of scientific misdeeds. Plus there are truly bogus practitioners at work, charging desperate people large sums for untested and potentially harmful treatments.

The mavens of science, those who control the medical schools and set the standards, may have some responsibility for some of the problems with replication. Writing May 8 on the blog of the Global Biological Standards Institute, scientist Beth Schachter touched on this in a post headlined, 
“What are science trainees learning about reproducibility?”

She asked one Ph.D. student at UC San Francisco what sort of training are he and his fellow students receiving on reproducibility and standards. The response?
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