May 27, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Responding to critics of blogging the Moriguchi iPS cell story

I’m getting some heat from some stem cell folks who think I should not have blogged about the Moriguchi iPS cell transplant case.

Their argument seems to be it would have been preferable to either (A) not blog about the story at all or only minimally so fewer people would know about it or (B) let professional journalists handle it in a more “measured” manner.

I don’t really buy either argument.

Let’s go over the timeline.

On October 10th, Hisashi Moriguchi reportedly presented his poster at the NYSCF meeting on supposed human transplants of iPS cells.

The top daily newspaper in all of Japan, Yomiuri Shimbun, published a huge story on this across their front page, above the fold October 10th edition stating it all as fact.

For those favoring argument (A) about downplaying this story, please note that Yomiuri has a circulation of 10 million. This was a huge deal and there would be no hiding it.

Earlier the previous day, October 9th, my colleague Doug Sipp who works in Japan and I had started a wonderful, multi-day email discussion of the key issues related to potential future clinical use of IPS cells. In part I was talking with Doug because of a blog post I was (coincidentally timing-wise) writing at that time on potential clinical use of iPS cells: Are iPS cells being rushed to the clinic or has their time come?

On the evening of October 10th, Doug filled me in on the Yomiuri newspaper story. I looked into it.

As best as I could tell there was absolutely nothing else on the Internet about this story. I emailed Moriguchi himself, but got no reply.

Later in the evening of October 10, I put up a very neutral blog post on this hugely important story. My goal: get the word out so this could be examined further and clarified ASAP.

At 7:36AM the next morning (October 11) B.D. Colen, Senior Communications Officer at Harvard, posted a comment on my post:

Harvard University, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts Hospital have issued the following joint statement:

“Hisashi Moriguchi was a visiting fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1999-2000, and has not been associated with MGH or Harvard since that time. No clinical trials related to Dr. Moriguchi’s work have been approved by institutional review boards at either Harvard University or MGH.”

B. D. Colen
Sr. Communications Officer for University Science
Harvard University
Director of Communications
Harvard Stem Cell Institute

On October 10th and for a good part of the day on October 11th, it was not at all clear the story was entirely false even if I was already 100% convinced Harvard had not approved the supposed transplants.

Moriguchi could have done the transplants without permission or institutional approval. Some people I talked to believed this was the case.

In subsequent blog posts, including one on October 11, I also defended Harvard and then later that day I made it clear in an early opinion piece that I believed the Moriguchi story was in all probability bunk.

I talked to many reporters and science writers who called me on the phone and emailed me about this case, and I told them I thought it was bogus. In this way, I hope I helped to get the word out further that this whole thing was looking more like fantasy and less like reality.

The next day on October 12th, Nature and Science both first published articles on the case.

Now the 20/20 hindsight folks are saying the story was obviously bunk from the beginning and I shouldn’t have blogged about it.

However, I don’t see how a lack of openness and discussion of this case would have been helpful.

Do you?

Tens of thousands of people around the world, importantly including many thousands in Japan where the newspaper story was probably read by millions, learned the facts about this case and read Harvard’s statement only via my blog.

To me that is critically important and I hope that it was a way I could help make a positive contribution to providing accurate, timely information about this situation.

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