This could have easily been the scientific breakthrough of the year. Two papers published in one of the leading research publications in the world, a promising new method that could have made whole fields of medical science bound forward.
Instead, it became one of the loudest science scandals in a long time. Perhaps ever.
The science disappointment of 2014
Stem cells are one of the hottest topics in medical research today. These cells, which can develop into almost any cell type in the human body, can be used in a wide range of promising therapies, from growing new organs to repairing ones you already have.
However, stem cells are difficult to acquire unless you are an embryo, and that path, amongst other issues, is ethically fraught. Hence scientists have also been exploring methods for creating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from normal cells. In a way, that means reversing them to a more basic state.
So far there have been few breakthroughs in this area, hence this January a surprising discovery made headlines far and wide. A team of Japanese researchers, lead by Dr Haruko Obokata, published two studies in the reputable journal Nature, describing a wonderful, simple method for creating iPS cells. All you needed to do was take blood cells, expose them to stress – such as an acid bath – and lo, pluripotency.
By February an investigation was launched into irregularities with some figures in the now famous papers. These problems were spotted by fellow scientists in online communities, and complaints rushed in.
After countless editorials, back-and-forth debate, further investigations and more, by July Nature retracted the two studies. Tragically, a month later one of Japan’s top stem cell scientists, a co-author of the study and mentor of the lead author, died in apparent suicide. Obokata has since attempted to replicate some of the results from the original study, and after failing to do so, resigned from her leading research role just a few weeks ago.
A lot more can be said about this stem cell scandal – about the lack of research integrity, and about the fact that these studies made it through peer review to begin with.
Nature have a special section on their website, where you can read a timeline of articles as it happened, as well as the surrounding discussion. I, for one, am glad that even though in a scandalous manner, the peer review process did tease out the truth in the end.