Science: Turning Stem Cells into Cash

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John Parrington asks who is to blame when scientific research becomes fraud.

Anyone who has lived in a house that suffers from subsidence will know that tensions and instabilities in the foundations of an apparently sound building are sometimes revealed by cracks that suddenly appear without warning. A huge crack in the edifice of biomedical science appeared recently when what appeared to be a major scientific breakthrough, the creation of tailor-made stem cells from cloned human embryos, published in the prestigious journal Science, turned out to be a fabrication. The fraud reveals the pressures put upon scientific research by a system that values competition and profit so highly and rewards scientists accordingly.

There are good reasons why stem cell research is one of the most exciting areas of science today. Such research is uncovering how the fertilised egg develops into all the many different types of cells that make up a human being. It is revealing how stem cells can naturally repair damaged parts of the body. They may also play a role in tumour formation, with potential implications for the treatment of cancer. But above all it is the possibility of harnessing the power of the stem cell for therapeutic purposes - so-called regenerative medicine - that keeps stem cell research in the headlines.

Stem cells are unique in that they continually reproduce and can give rise to the different tissues and organs of the body. Adult stem cells are found in all our tissues, and normally generate the particular specialised cells of that tissue. But the stem cells of the early embryo have the capacity to give rise to any cell in the body. The hope is that it should be possible to use such cells to generate a new pancreas for someone with diabetes, or new brain or nerve cells for a person with Parkinson's disease or spinal cord injuries, as well as countless other therapeutic applications.

The head of the South Korean team, Dr Hwang Woo-suk, made the headlines when he reported that his group had obtained stem cells from cloned human embryos, created by transplanting the genes from an adult human cell into a human egg. Other stem cell researchers had shown that stem cells could be obtained from human embryos left over from infertility treatment. But by obtaining stem cells from embryos cloned from specific individuals, the Korean team opened up the possibility of producing tissue transplants that were tailored to match individual patients, and thus would not be rejected by their immune systems.

Dr Hwang became a national hero in South Korea. The Korean government elevated him from scientist to superstar, giving him the title of 'Supreme Scientist'. His laboratory was probably one of the best funded in the world, and he flew first class wherever he wanted, for free, courtesy of Korean Airlines. There was a lot to be gained from promoting Hwang as the face of the future for a government worried about competition from China in traditional manufacturing. The country's fledgling biotechnology industry saw shares surge.

But like a Greek tragedy, Dr Hwang's fall from grace has been swift. Things began to unravel in November last year, when serious ethical issues emerged regarding the manner in which human eggs had been obtained for the study. The Helsinki agreement requires that human eggs should be donated voluntarily and without any pressure. But Hwang had obtained eggs from two female scientists in his research group, a clear breach of the guidelines as such subordinate individuals could clearly be under pressure to comply with the demands of their boss.

But these revelations were only the tip of an iceberg of fraud and deceit. Anonymous postings on South Korean science websites began to question not just the ethics but the very authenticity of Dr Hwang's data. One pointed out that photographs of the eleven supposedly patient-specific stem cell colonies were doctored versions of photos of ordinary stem cells that had appeared in an earlier study. Another pointed out that the DNA fingerprinting images used to prove the patient-specific nature of the cells had also been fabricated. It is to the credit of these online whistleblowers that they resisted what seems to have been extreme pressure to cover up the fraud.

The political atmosphere in South Korea seems to have had some role to play in the pressures that pushed Dr Hwang to commit fraud. One scientist in South Korea has argued, 'Government policies to support and finance Hwang's work merged with nationalism and patriotism to create a quasi-fascist environment that suppressed criticism.' Even now some people seem to be having trouble accepting the truth. At a candlelit vigil in support of Dr Hwang, one woman was quoted as saying, 'Faking the research paper was not so important. The important thing is that he made important progress in his research. Bringing down a scholar like this is not helping the country.' It is hard to think of any sentiment more antithetical to the spirit of science, which aims to uncover the true nature of the world around us.

But it would be wrong to think that the environment that led to the fraud is peculiar to South Korea. Another case of fraud took place recently at Bell Laboratories, one of the most venerable names in Western physical science. Although it was not as widely reported as the stem cell fraud, in many ways it was more far-reaching. One of Bell's most high-flying physicists, Dr Jan Schon, published a succession of high-profile articles in the prestigious journal Nature claiming to show that he had discovered a new type of superconductor. If true, his work could have revolutionised electronics, but it all turned out to be false.

So what pushes a small number of scientists to commit fraud? One factor has to be the need to publish in the most high profile science journals that currently characterises academic life. In Britain, university scientists are now judged every five years by the Research Assessment Exercise. This ranks a scientist's research purely on the basis of whether they happen to have published articles in what are perceived as the top scientific journals. This is then presented as a number. It is perhaps not surprising that for scientists, publishing an article in Science or Nature could be seen as the only true definition of their worth. Undoubtedly the best defence against scientific fraud is for scientific workers to speak out when they suspect unethical or fraudulent practices are taking place around them. But for them to be confident about doing so means challenging the neo-liberal agenda that dominates the universities and leads to scientific worth being judged by a narrow accountant's standard.