The Moriguchi iPS transplant fable: key lessons & where do we go from here

More and more evidence is accumulating that the alleged iPS cell transplantation in human patients by Dr. Hisashi Moriguchi was bunk.

Nature today has a piece out today on the story providing more quotes about the case that suggest the whole thing was made up.

Rather than re-hash all the details, in this post I’m going to focus on lessons from this case and where do we go from here.

One lesson to learn from this case is that the media, even a huge outlet such as The Daily Yomiuri, can get tricked. Those of us who first reported on the Moriguchi story after Yomiuri’s apparent bombshell newspaper article used appropriate caution in my opinion. No one pointed fingers at Harvard. No one blew it out of proportion.

Another lesson is that working together the stem cell community can rapidly defuse a bomb of a story such as this one to minimize any damage to the field. However, a critical part of this safety mechanism is that there have to be people out there keeping an eye on things. In this regard, a huge amount of credit should go to Doug Sipp who first alerted me to the story. To my knowledge this happened way before anyone else was aware of the story. We then tried to get the facts out in as rapid, but cautious a manner as possible. I think we succeeded. What people may not know is there an informal network of stem cell researchers and advocates, unsung heroes in my opinion, out there keeping an eye out for fraud and other developments that can be harmful to the stem cell community and patients.

I also believe that meeting organizers must be very vigilant for potential red flags in abstracts submitted for talks or posters at their meetings. For example, an abstract indicating clinical use in humans of iPS cells should have been caught by someone as out of the ordinary and warranting further scrutiny….that is assuming Moriguchi’s original abstract that was submitted accurately reflected his intention to present on that topic. Some wonder if he changed what to present to capitalize on Yamanaka’s recent Nobel Prize. Once someone passes the threshold to present at a meeting, even if it is “just” a poster, the media assumes their work is vetted and kosher.

A frustrating, but all too true lesson is that there are a lot of people out there waiting to capitalize on the excitement surrounding stem cells. I think the Moriguchi case illustrates this very well, but it is also true of dubious stem cell clinics.

In the end, the good news relatively speaking is that I do not believe this case has harmed the stem cell field significantly. However, it could have ended differently.

We also need to be aware that there may be future developments of this kind popping up in the mainstream media that are dangerous for the field and patients.

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