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Wednesday, January 04, 2006 | Born a Frenchman, I sometimes enjoy comparing scientific research to the making of a great wine. Both require an eclectic body of experience, the development of an extraordinarily wide range of imagination, knowledge and skills, gargantuan patience, the dogged persistence to try and try again against prodigious odds, and above all, the ability to admit mistakes and to recognize how much greater one’s ignorance remains over erudition.
This does not mean being humble, far from it!
A measure of confident arrogance is sometimes necessary to defend one’s hard-earned propositions against a learned but almost invariably skeptical community of peers. In the end the proof is always in the result, like tasting the wine, not by reading the label, believing the pedigree or taking the word of the marketer.
Faking observations (i.e. data) is always difficult to differentiate from being fooled by preconceived notions. Witnesses are notoriously unreliable, and elaborate scientific procedures are devised to eliminate self-delusions.
The published scientific report contains a critical “materials and methods” part, providing meticulous details on how the experiments were conducted, and what verifying controls were applied to them. The results from these experiments must clearly demonstrate how conjectures have become demonstrable conclusions.
Scientists from other laboratories must be able to copy the materials and methods – the recipes, if you will – and reproduce the original experiments with the same results before the conclusions are generally accepted and serve to advance the field of inquiry.
The hurdles that an individual faces, from the moment he or she decides to proceed with a hard-science education, an extended apprenticeship, the accumulation of a respectable body of peer-reviewed publications, and recognition as a full-fledged member of the scientific community is long and arduous. Without exception, scientists know only too well how easy it is easy to stumble and to make mistakes.
Being accused of engaging or participating in a scientific fraud is lethal to one’s career to say nothing of the damage it does to the scientific enterprise. Scientists also know that scientific fraud, by its very nature, cannot possibly long survive scrutiny from one’s peers. The more significant the fraud, the swifter is the demise.
There are exceptions, of course. The infamous forgery in 1912 of the supposed fossil skull of Piltdown man lasted about forty years and caused enormous harm to paleontology. But this kind of extended time lapse is unlikely to happen today. The sad example of Dr. Hwang’s is testimony to that fact.
So what led Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University to manufacture a body of data claiming to have been able to efficiently derive lines of stem cells from cloned human embryos? This would make it possible for specific human patients to be treated with their own cells containing their own DNA, thus avoid rejection by the patient’s own immune system.
Dr. Hwang claimed to have produced 11 such stem cell lines in a series of published reports, the latest one in the Science issue of 17 June 2005 (pages 1777-1783, first published online May 19, 2005, 25 contributing authors listed, led by Woo Suk Hwang). It did not take long, however, for rumors to circulate – and for cracks to open – before Dr. Hwang owned up to an audacious and devastating series of deception in his research for which he had been originally lionized in his country as well as in our own.
Indeed, California in general, and San Diego in particular are directly affected by the fallouts of this debacle. It has to do with damage to the credibility of the stem cell enterprise, and the trust of the public in the funding of scientific research. But it should not be.
What happened in South Korea unjustifiably reverberates in California, but it should not create one more unmerited impediment to an already charged situation. In November 2004, California voters passed Proposition 71 and created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Over the next 10 years, the CIRM would distribute $3 billon to fund carefully peer-reviewed stem cell research in California. Unfortunately, this grand project is now mired in legal conflicts generated by politically and religiously motivated antagonism that mirrors the resistance of Washington to stem cell research.
Right now, the CIRM has awarded vital training grants, but it has no money to award. Training grants are critical because they are the basic human and intellectual tools necessary to advance the effort. Without a cadre of first-rank new scientists, there can be no sustained advances into stem cell research. The CIRM, a team of dedicated academic and industrial scientists, cannot get the funds because the litigation prevents it from selling the bonds that have been approved by the voters.
In the meantime, says Tina S. Nova, president and CEO of Genoptics in San Diego, a member of the committee, the CIRM has to run with a crew of only two full-time scientists in an effort to save money. This is no way to manage a multi-billion dollar project, to say the least!
Efforts are being made to borrow money from wealthy individuals until funds can come in. Thus far, a $5 million grant from the Dolby Foundation has been received, barely enough for a six months operation of the entire endeavor.
Nova believes, as I do, that California voters with the CIRM will win in the end. Enormous efforts are being made to achieve that ultimate result. The committee continues to meet monthly at different locations throughout California and it has subcommittee meetings by telephone every month as well. It is doing a great deal of work, but it is frustratingly stuck in neutral.
In the meantime, the promise for treating, alleviating and curing major medical problems remain in limbo. California voters approve propositions, but many of them, for better or for worse, can be and are often constitutionally challenged in the courts, thus negating the voter intent.
Stem cell research is still in its infancy and it will remain there unless scientists can be allowed to seek meaningful solutions to serious human conditions. The Chinese wisely say that a long journey starts with a single step. Disappointingly, California, a state that has always been at the forefront of progress, is allowing the uninformed and the fearful to deny it the opportunity to take one of the first steps.
Elie A. Shneour, a native of France and WWII U.S. veteran, is president of Biosystems Institutes, Inc. and research director of Biosystems Research Institute of San Diego.