Caplan Article on Bogus Stem Cell Research: Some Different Views

When bioethicist Arthur Caplan talks about stem cells, people pay close attention and for good reason.

Art Caplan

Caplan has provided important perspectives on the stem cell field over the years. For example, you can see a guest post on this blog here about human cloning.

However, in my post today I respectfully discuss how I disagree with several parts of this week’s piece by Caplan on why there are allegedly so many ethical problems in the stem cell research field.

Caplan’s article (see screenshot from video at right) is focused on a question articulated by the title:

Why so much Fake, Unduplicable Stem Cell Research?

One might start off the bat by challenging the article’s title and intrinsic question above, since in reality that the vast majority of stem cell research is quite real and replicable.

David Jensen over at California Stem Cell Report, writing about Caplan’s article, pointed out that serious research issues are not unique to the stem cell field as, for example, there have been disastrous issues in the cancer field too:

There is no doubt some spectacular fraud has surfaced in stem cell research. But the problem of replication within stem cell research may not be entirely out of line with problems elsewhere in science. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote last fall about a study by Amgen that examined 53 “landmark papers” in cancer research and blood biology. Only five could be proved valid, a shocking result, according to Amgen. Similar results were turned up byBayer in Germany, Hiltzik said.

On the other hand, there have been some truly terrible stem cell research fiascos of late so let’s focus on Caplan’s reasoning for why the stem cell field has had these problematic events.

Caplan begins by talking about the STAP cell fiasco in Japan involving allegedly faked research reported in Nature that powerful stem cells could be made by simple stressors such as low pH.

Caplan writes that the researcher in question, Haruko Obokata, “confessed that she had made it up.” In fact, quite the opposite is true. Dr. Obokata says that her study is correct overall and that she did not make it up. To my knowledge, she only admitted to careless errors arising innocently from lack of experience that she says do not affect the conclusions of her papers.

Getting back to the central question of why stem cell research sometimes runs into ethical problems Caplan argues that lack of funding is one reason for the problems. I wish there was indeed more stem cell research funding, but I do not believe this is a clear reason for ethical problems in the field. I don’t see this playing a significant role and funding woes certainly aren’t specific to the stem cell field.

A second reason given for trouble is what one might call the “stem cell hero temptation” effect. In other words, breakthroughs in stem cells might gain a researcher the world’s attention  (“being a hero to the world” is how Caplan describes the attraction ) so there may be perceived incentive to fudge or outright fake stuff. From some of the cases we’ve seen in recent years, this reason seems accurate.

An additional Caplan assertion for explaining the ethical issues facing the stem cell field can be boiled down to a lack of people to provide oversight. Caplan writes:

Another major problem in the stem cell field is that the number of people doing research in this area has shrunk…That may mean that there are fewer people to watch one another.

I’d be interested to see if he has any data to back up this claim. In fact, my sense is the opposite about the size of the stem cell field. If anything the number of people working on stem cells seems to continue to grow overall. I do not believe that the stem cell field lacks sufficient people power to adequately review itself.

So if I disagree with two out of three of Caplan’s reasons, why then do I think that there are sometimes ethical challenges in the stem cell field such as the STAP cell problem?

First, let me say again that he’s right about a few unwise research folks chasing international fame at any cost.

However, another issue here is that a heck of a lot more people around the globe are paying attention to the stem cell field. As a result, ethical problems that are also present in other fields of science (e.g. image manipulation, non-reproducible papers, etc) get noticed far more if they are in stem cell papers. To sum it up, there are more eyes on stem cell papers looking for troubles after publication.

As I blogged before, I also believe that in the specific STAP case, the reviewers and probably editors too were unduly positively biased by the addition of some stem cell big wigs to the authors list on the STAP Nature papers. This points to another contributing problem to broader problems in the field: a small number of stem cell bigwigs have way too much power as reviewers. In other words, journal editors rely on too few eyes to review the highest profile manuscripts. Big journals and their editors need to diversify their stem cell reviewer lists and the review process needs to be more about data and less about names.

In the end the stem cell field is likely to continue to run into a few bumps and even land mines as it proceeds. Addressing recurring problems in an open, expeditious manner would be wise. Training in ethics for researchers seems to be in need of a boost. The journal review process also is a logical place to focus. Is it naive to hope that Nature might take the lead on reform of the review process?