March 27, 2008
Editorial: A Reprogramming Rush
Stem-cell research is in danger of falling foul of haste.
In the most recent of his series of stunning articles on induced pluripotent
stem (iPS) cells (T. Aoi et al. Science doi:10.1126/science.1154884; 2008),
Shinya Yamanaka made a couple of small mistakes. Happily, he has since
given plausible explanations for the mistakes, and has effectively argued
that they do not affect the article's central conclusions - thus heading off
worries (and one unsubstantiated accusation) that the errors signalled
deeper problems with the article.
Still, the incident illustrates why there is cause for concern as scientists hop
on the iPS bandwagon (see page 406). The very existence of such
carelessness by the leading light of iPS cell research, a scientist known
for his thorough, careful work, shows how much the race mentality has
taken over the field. The paper was published online a mere five and a half
weeks after it was submitted. Other key articles in the field show similar signs
of being rushed for publication. One biotech company recently announced its
iPS cell results without even bothering to publish (see Nature 452, 132; 2008).
And authors have been pushing journal editors to speed up peer review - under
the threat of taking the paper elsewhere - which puts even more pressure on
the small circle of reviewers sufficiently versed in iPS cell science.
Competition is good. Indeed, it is a major reason why iPS cell research has
flourished since 2006, when Yamanaka first showed that a handful of genes
can reprogram a cell to a pluripotent state. Nonetheless, the fast-moving fields
of science are showing some unpleasant tendencies. Researchers are cutting
corners and making mistakes. They are making over-hyped promises that
will probably be broken. And they are neglecting other valuable fields of
research. All this has already been seen in iPS cell research.
Hype may also carry researchers away from their mission and raise the
spectre of fraud. Indeed, as Alan Trounson, head of the California
Institute of Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco recently told
Nature Reports Stem Cells, "excessive" media attention on iPS cell research
could "separate science from reality" in the same way it did during the
therapeutic-cloning scandal surrounding South Korea's Woo Suk Hwang.
"Cool heads and a close connection with the lab should prevail in order to
ensure science progresses truly by reliable evidence," he says.
The errors in Yamanaka's article are unfortunate - not least because they
play into the hands of those who want to tarnish the science or the scientists.
The criticism of Yamanaka's article came from an anonymous source who
seemed bent on a personal attack. From the address "Reprogrammer
Yamanaka" on 29 February, the e-mailer sent an account of Yamanaka's
mistakes to journal editors, science journalists and scientists, scolding
Yamanaka for his "embarrassing inconsistencies" and calling on him
"to either retract their paper or provide meticulous and thorough new analysis".
Yes, this attack was overly dramatic. And yes, Yamanaka owned up to his
mistakes with commendable speed and honesty. But even so, this incident
should be a wake-up call.
Post-Hwang, scientists and journals undertook much soul-searching about
what went wrong. Some came to the bad-apple theory - that Hwang was
just an anomaly. Most, rightly, saw it as a deeper problem that could affect
any field of science. In the aftermath, many researchers vowed to
redouble their efforts to guard against honest mistakes (usually attributed,
as Hwang did at first, to the rush to submit articles), as well as against the
whole spectrum of selective presentation of data, manipulation of images
and outright fraud. iPS cell research may be the first substantial test of these efforts.