April 20, 2024

Shadow of Hwang over stem cell research

Yamanaka made small mistakes in recent paper

Much like the
sinister Nazgûl in the Lord of the
Rings, the spectre of fraudster Hwang
Woo-suk hovers over stem cell research. This time his chilling shadow
fell on its most recent star, Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka.
Yamanaka become a key player almost overnight with a series of
stunning papers showing that it was possible to create embryonic-like
stem cells without destroying embryos. His work may make embryonic
stem cell research a dead end, say its opponents. And enthusiasm for
his induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) is growing by the day
in laboratories around the world.

However, it seems
that in his haste to publish results, Yamanaka made a couple of small
mistakes in his latest paper, published online on February 14 in the
journal Science.
Two weeks later, an anonymous email was sent to journal editors,
science journalists and scientists pointing out the errors. Someone
called “Reprogrammer Yamanaka” pointed out “embarrassing
inconsistencies” and insisted that his team “either retract their
paper or provide meticulous and thorough new analysis”.

Had the Nazgûl
stabbed Frodo? It seems not, says Nature
in a recent editorial. “Happily, he has since given plausible
explanations for the mistakes, and has effectively argued that they
do not affect the article’s central conclusion — thus heading off
worries (and one unsubstantiated accusation) that the errors
signalled deeper problems with the article.”

In fact, the cold
breath of the Korean ringwraith might have cheered scientists
threatened by Yamanaka’s technique. If it succeeds, they may not be
to muster the PR power to convince a sceptical public to authorise
and fund therapeutic cloning. Stem cell scientist Alan Trounson,
wrote in Nature Reports Stem Cells
that many journalists were already asking: "Isn’t the California
Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) out of business now that
the Yamanaka and Thomson papers show human fibroblasts can be induced
to pluripotency?" He responded cheerily that embryonic stem
cells remain the “gold standard” in all stem cell research. And
the president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research,
, recently declared, “There
will never be a time when we don’t need human embryo research.”

However, not all of
his colleagues feel the same way. In a Nature
article which was aimed at stripping iPS cells of their glamour, the
scientist who first isolated human embryonic stem cells, James
Thomson, of the University of Wisconsin, foresees the end of an era.
“If you can’t tell the difference between iPS cells and embryonic
stem cells, the embryonic stem cells will turn out to be an
historical anomaly,” he says. ~ Nature, Mar 27; Nature Reports Stem
Cells, Jan 24; Alameda Times Star, Mar 20