Stem Cell Hype and Hope
The apparent fabrication of results by South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk has already prompted a serious reevaluation of stem cell science, and the release this week of Seoul National University's final report on the affair is certain to add fuel to the fire. Many detractors of stem cell research (and, privately, even some proponents) have begun to wonder whether this might mark the beginning of the end. More likely this controversy -- and the ensuing scrutiny and self-reflection -- will provide exactly what our discipline needs most: the opportunity to modulate the extravagant expectations for this research while we reaffirm our underlying commitment to it.
The rapid ascent of stem cell research into the spotlight reflects the collision of exciting science with uncharted ethics. President Bush's Aug. 9, 2001, prohibition on the use of public funds to create new human embryonic stem cell lines ignited interest in this field, even as it made it much more difficult for American scientists to conduct the research. The concern that important medical science was being deliberately thwarted by the federal government enraged many patient advocates and further ratcheted up the demand for results.
Meanwhile, stem cell research itself trudged ahead slowly, for all the usual reasons -- as well as some unique ones. Scientific research is notoriously difficult, and progress typically incremental; human embryonic stem cells also happen to be intrinsically difficult to grow. Moreover, government restrictions severely hampered the ability of researchers to pursue the best science and discouraged many bright young investigators from entering the field.
As the demand for results far outstripped the ability of researchers to supply them, a seller's market emerged in which goods were overvalued and even low-quality merchandise was snatched up by eager buyers. This is the context in which Hwang's studies appeared.
While most in the field of stem cell research were shocked by the reports of fraud, the shock was only one of degree; it is common knowledge that the bar for publication in this field often has appeared remarkably low, with even well-respected research journals seeming to fall over one another for the privilege of publishing the next hot paper. The result of this frenzy has been an entire body of literature that is viewed with extreme skepticism by most serious stem cell investigators.
The good news is that underneath all this mess, stellar science really is happening. Stem cells have proved even more captivating than we could have imagined, and understanding the process by which a stem cell progressively differentiates into a specialized cell such as a neuron or a pancreas beta cell is perhaps the most compelling biology question for our generation. Stem cells have sparked our interest for good reason.
But we're not going to figure out how they work overnight; it will take a very long time and require our best minds, as well as our collective effort (and, ideally, our collective dollars). Translating this knowledge into clinically meaningful applications is certain to take even longer and present still more challenges -- yet it should be achievable. If the current controversy were to cause us to precipitously abandon this exciting area, it would be a catastrophic shame.
What we really need is to refine our expectations for this research. This doesn't mean we should scale back our ambitions or demand less of our researchers. Rather, we need to recognize just how arduous and painstaking good science usually is and remind ourselves that data do not become dogma when published, but only when independently validated.
Difficult or not, good research is the only responsible way to proceed. If the promise of stem cells is to be fulfilled, the pursuit will require a solid scientific foundation, one grounded in reliable, reproducible facts and not simply supported by hype and hope.
The writer is an endocrinologist at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.