By Saad Anjum

 

Stem cell medicine is both promising and ethically controversial. This combination has resulted in a politically-charged playing field where promise can be hyped, and patients’ desperate hopes for stem cell cures for currently untreatable conditions provide an irresistible lure for unscrupulous profit-seekers. It is a difficult climate, where even cautious scientists, proceeding methodically, can feel pressured to produce results, and now. In this setting, perhaps the repeated instances of real and alleged scientific fraud shouldn’t be surprising. Scientists are vying for fame and the dollar right along with scientific knowledge. Even among those who don’t completely eschew their responsibilities to gather careful evidence prior to injecting patients with stem cell-based concoctions, the many pressures may reduce to a singular demand for rapid results.

 

The best known example of stem cell research fraud comes from Woo Suk Hwang, who published a paper in Science in 2004 claiming that his team created the world’s first cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them. Dr. Hwang’s research vaulted his team to both national and international fame and led to funding to continue his research. Hwang published a second paper in Science a year later, this one claiming that the team had used the same technique to create human embryonic stem cell lines that were a genetic match to specific patients. Word of Hwang’s groundbreaking discoveries undoubtedly raised hopes in patients who were desperate for cures. However, scientists discovered several indications that data was fabricated and Science retracted both papers. In the end, the South Korean government convicted Hwang for embezzling money from the government for research, illegally purchasing human eggs, and falsifying his papers.

 

Concerns about scientific fraud in the world of stem cell research continue to appear. Davide Vannoni is deemed by some colleagues to be just such a perpetrator. Vannoni, an Italian psychologist before pursuing stem cell research, promised a cure to several fatal illnesses with his stem cell-based intervention. With patient protests and pressure, the Italian government pledged $3.9 million (US dollars) to support clinical trials. Critics argued that Vannoni’s preparation of stem cells for treatment is both unproven and based on faulty data and therefore called for the government to pull back its support. With over one hundred people volunteering for the trial, protests ensued when Vannoni’s lab was ordered to suspend operations. The government-supported clinical trial was supposed to begin July 1st but has been repeatedly delayed because Vannoni has not revealed his methods for treatment to the government committee in charge of the trial.

 

Another recent example of where concerns have been raised is in response to work from Bodo-Eckehard Strauer. Strauer left his position as head of cardiology at the Düsseldorf University Hospital and formed the Bodo-Eckehard Strauer research group to pursue stem cell research. In his many publications, Strauer has drawn accusations of hyping his scientific findings and questions about the validity of his studies. Darrel Francis and his colleagues raise many questions about the validity of Strauer’s research as the focus of their recent peer-reviewed publication in the International Journal of Cardiology. The paper describes large contradictions and flaws in the presentation of Strauer’s research. Peter Wilmshurst comments on the findings in an editorial of his own that was published in the International Journal of Cardiology, suggesting that Strauer’s research be thoroughly reviewed before being considered valid.

 

Some of the activities in the stem cell arena that should give us pause are easier to spot: treatments offered at high prices in advance of evidence; miraculous claims of improbable cures. These aside, we should still be wary of the potential for subtler forms of bad behavior. While this is true in most areas of science, in stem cell science the political stakes, desperation for cures and the potentially vast financial rewards, among other things may coincide to create uniquely challenging pressures. This may be reflected in the fact that cases of bad behavior continue to be identified, or these cases may actually be an indication that the international stem cell science community is competent in policing itself, identifying and responding to misconduct. There isn’t enough evidence to say for certain (it’s an unknown-unknowns problem). We do have enough evidence to warrant vigilance. Scientific claims must be carefully scrutinized in a manner that appropriately reflects the difficult context in which this work is proceeding.

 


Saad Anjum
is a undergraduate bioethics intern at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and a writing seminars major at Johns Hopkins University

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