Scientific Fraud in Stem Cell Research: Crime or No Crime?

scientific-fraudStem cells are undifferentiated biological cells that can differentiate into specialized cells, which have the ability to repair themselves and can even form tissue or organ-specific cells with special function. They have been an area of research for many years due to their ability to develop into specialized cells under certain physiological or experimental conditions. Scientists work on these cells for issues such as developing a cure for cancer, and some have had some success when using them. However, what happens when the data turns out to be fraudulent? Although scientific fraud is rare, there have been a handful of cases in the area of stem cell research where the published data has been falsified in some way. To date, there is no guaranteed legal punishment for scientific fraud and it is not even considered a crime. It should, however, be a crime. Falsifying information is misleading and there should be some form of legal punishment to try to prevent fraud form occurring.

The two kinds of stem cells that scientists work with are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos and can be grown through invitro fertilization. For adult stem cells, there is still no certainty where they are derived from, but they are found in many tissues throughout our body. The most recent case of fraud occurred with scientists working with adult stem cells. The research was done at a leading institute, Riken, in Japan. They had originally found breakthrough information working with what the scientist called “STAP” cells, which stands for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. They claimed that a simple acid bath could turn cells in the body into stem cells, which could one day be used for a wide range of medical treatments. However, when the study was published in two different papers, other stem cell researchers pointed out errors in the papers, as well as findings of plagiarism and images that appeared to be duplicated or manipulated. The papers were retracted and that is when the scrutiny began. Riken cleared the head scientist, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, of any misconduct because he had no hands-on activity with the research. He simply had to oversee the data and read the final manuscript before it was published. Although the company cleared him, the criticism from the media and from other scientists took a toll on Dr. Sasai and he committed suicide. The company did investigate the other co-author, Haruko Obokata. She was charged with fabricating data, doctoring images, and barrowing descriptions from other papers. Eventually, she admitted to errors but stated that it did not affect the final results. She is still currently on staff at Riken, but has kept a low profile. However, she was recently given the opportunity to take part in a five-month experiment designed to prove her results.

In another case that took place in 2006, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk from South Korea claimed to have developed stem cells from only a certain number of embryos, but it turned out there were many more eggs used than he claimed. Dr. Hwang stated the embryos were out of his hand in early development to MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, and did not know they were falsifying the data. Dr. Hwang, along with several of his colleagues, was indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and breach of the country’s bioethics law, without physical detention. He was charged due to how he misused the government money, but there was still no legal charge against him for falsifying scientific data. He still got away with something he should have been punished for.

There were two more cases that have made major headlines in the past decade. In 2012, an anonymous person called Seoul National University to report errors in the stem cell research of Soo Kyung Kang. They stated that there were pasted together lanes in PCR gels and the same control blot data was shown across different experiments and in different papers, ultimately leading to the retraction of four of her papers. Another case earlier this year involved a German cardiologist named Bodo-Eckehard Strauer. He claimed he had found stem cells derived from bone-borrow cells that can repair damage in diseased hearts. An investigation committee at the University of Dusseldorf started an investigation against him and his work, due to finding misconduct in his papers. However, the conclusion will not be posted until sometime next year.

All of these cases that have emerged demonstrate that scientific fraud is now becoming a reoccurring issue. Even though the recent case in Japan triggered the death of Dr. Sasai due to the amount of stress, the fraud should not have been done in the first place. A higher amount of care and attention needs to be put on the research due to the major medical breakthroughs it can cause.

Of course there are some actions that are taken to punish the scientists in a minor way. In all of these cases, the published papers were retracted. Dr. Suk was dismissed from the University that he worked for. These are small steps in the right direction, but it does not prevent it from reoccurring again in other research. Sure, these alone should scare the scientists into not even considering doing it because it will damage their reputations, but it has not worked. Dr. Bhutta states that “when somebody is determined to commit something like this and does, if it is brought to light, then I think the full weight of law needs to come on that person.” He then went on to point out other areas of research where fraud has been committed, such as a pain study done by an anesthesiologist. He was sentenced to six months in jail and another pharmaceutical company was fined $500 million dollars for scientific fraud on a new medication. Dr. Bhutta stated that “there should be more of those kinds of consequences for scientists who deliberately commit fraud, whether it is reporting on studies that never took place, manipulating the outcome of research, or misrepresenting a clinical trial’s findings.” Dr. Julian Crane rebutted against Dr. Bhutta’s argument stating that “criminalizing research misconduct is a sad, bad, even mad idea that will only undermine the trust that is an essential component of research and requires good governance, not criminal investigators.” He is claiming that there should be more attention and emphasis on what goes on during the research before it is published. He does have a point, but people should also be honest about the work they do. They should not be falsifying their data in the first place.

There is also the fact that scientific fraud not only affects the scientist who was caught, but also the co-workers who participated in the study. Sometimes it is the workers involved that commit the fraud rather than the head scientist, as was the case in 1896, when a lab worker lied about his data, but nonetheless, everyone involved in the research is affected. In a scientific fraud case of a psychologist Dr. Dirk Smeesters, a co-worker, Jonathan Levav, was accused of participating in the fraud committed by Dr. Smeesters. He spoke out stating, “[the other coworkers and I] are not guilty. I’m not afraid to say this and I have nothing to be ashamed about.” Although he claimed his innocence, just being associated with Dr. Smeesters gives people the reason to jump to conclusions, and blame everyone involved as well. Their innocence does not matter due to people stating they are “guilty by association.”

To prevent scientific fraud, there are simple steps that can be taken. One simple step that can be taken is for the head scientist to simply make clear what is expected in their laboratories. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page during the course of the research. Another proposition that has been made is to have a third party facility to oversee the research being done, such as the National Institute of Health. Something like this could provide such a service in an efficient and effective manner. Lastly, simply having a stricter manuscript review before submission will ensure that there is no fraud involved in the data.

Scientific fraud in stem cell research does not happen too often, but when it does, it is brought into the spotlight by the media, due to the big hype surrounding stem cell research and the big possibilities it has. This puts a lot of pressure on the scientists to produce something of value that will change the face of medicine and biology for the years to come. It is cutting edge research and attracts scientists that are very competitive. They want to be the ones to come up with the next big discovery, but in order to do that something has to be published, so they cut corners and do things such as plagiarism and modifying images. All of these factors make it understandable as to why they commit scientific fraud, but it still does not make it right. Even with the reoccurring fraud that has emerged, stem cell research has only gained popularity as the years have passed since it began. It is still a controversy that many people disagree with, and now adding scientific fraud only makes it become that much more discredited, even with it’s popularity gain.

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9 Responses to “Scientific Fraud in Stem Cell Research: Crime or No Crime?”

  1. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this fantastic blog!
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  2. I had no idea that this was even going on so thank you for an interesting read. It is a shame to see that researchers need to be forced into being honest. I agree that it should be a crime to falsify results. I get that a lot of time, money, and effort is put into these type of research projects but even if your experiment fails it is good because it eliminates that possibility. Science grows more by proving things wrong than it does by finding a solution.

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