Sunday, October 07, 2012

Stem Cell Orthodoxy and Peer Review

Going against the grain can be difficult as UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler learned again in connection with his research that dealt with similarities between cancer and iPS cells.

His “unsettling” findings troubled some scientists who reviewed his paper prior to its publication in September in Stem Cells and Development. (See here and here.)

As many readers know, iPS or reprogrammed adult cells are currently a hot research avenue in stem cell research because they avoid many of the ticklish ethical and political problems connected with human embryonic stem cells.

Knoepfler shared his thoughts on the publication and peer review process on his blog last week. He wrote,
“Not surprisingly...there are certain members of the stem cell field who would rather focus away from the ideas that iPS cells are similar in some respects to cancer.”
Knoepfler, whose research was financed in part by the California stem cell agency, wrote,
“Once we had a manuscript together comparing iPS cells to cancer cells, we sent it to several high profile journals without much luck. We thought that the fact that our data indicated that iPS cells are similar to cancer cells might make reviewers and editors excited. We thought that the paper was novel and thought provoking in a number of ways. At the same time I realized the theme of the paper would be controversial. 
“I would say two general things about the review process at the two journals that turned down the paper. First, the reviewers at these journals were enormously helpful with their suggestions and helped us improve the paper substantially. Second, they were clearly very uncomfortable with the notion that iPS cells are related in some ways to cancer so unsettled in fact that I believe it influenced their reviews.”
At one journal, a reviewer said the findings were either “not sufficiently novel” or “trivial.” “Little useful insights” said another. And a third said, “many unsettling results....”

Knoepfler commented on this blog,
“Yeah, it may be unsettling that iPS cells share traits with cancer cells, but if that is the reality, isn’t it important that people know that and think about it, talk about it, and address the issue with eyes open?”
Knoepfler's item and similar comments from other researchers that can found elsewhere on the Internet indirectly raise questions about the California stem cell agency's process of peer review of applications for hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, especially in the wake of this summer's unprecedented rash of appeals of decisions by grant reviewers.

The key question is whether the agency's closed-door process reinforces orthodoxy or, in fact, is all but controlled by what amounts to scientific conventional wisdom. Obviously, no researcher likes to see a paper rejected or a grant denied. But the record number of appeals at CIRM and other private complaints could well indicate that potentially profitable proposals are receiving a less than welcome reception behind closed doors from agency reviewers.

The agency's board itself is hard-pressed to make such determinations. It is hamstrung by procedures that do not permit it to expand an application directly – only a staff-written summary. Names of applicants and institutions are censored, although the board is required by law to discuss in public most aspects of a research proposal. Exceptions are permitted for proprietary information. Additionally, a handful of the 29 members of the governing board do participate in the reviews, which come before final action by the board. 

Currently the agency is pushing hard to commercialize stem cell research and fulfill at least some of the promises to voters that were made in 2004. To do that, the agency may well have to step outside of the normal comfort zone of the good burghers of stem cell science.

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