Panel's Tests Confirm Falsehoods in Key Stem-Cell Study

Last week, a panel at Seoul National University concluded that a paper thought to have been a breakthrough in stem-cell research contained data from at best two patients. After further testing, the panel said Thursday there were no patient-specific stem cells used.

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Some scientific research once described as a breakthrough now appears to be a complete fabrication. Earlier this year, South Korean researchers claimed they had used cloning techniques to make embryonic stem cells from 11 different patients. If this had really happened, it would be a huge development, because if you could make an embryonic stem cell using your own DNA, scientists might someday use it for new medical treatments tailored especially to you. But last week, a panel at Seoul National University concluded the research contained data from, at best, two patients, not 11, and today, after further testing, the panel has said there were none of these patient-specific stem cells. NPR's Joe Palca's been following this story, and he's with us in the studio.

Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: So these people did put out a paper in the journal Science, put out a bunch of charts and pictures and so forth. What was all this based on if there were no stem cells at all?

PALCA: Well, they were based on stem cells, embryonic stem cells, but they just weren't these special tailor-made stem cells. They were stem cells that were obtained, apparently, from embryos that were left over from people who had gone for in vitro fertilization and they hadn't used all their embryos in that process. And that's where the first stem cells that were originally made came from and that's where these, apparently, from Seoul came from.

INSKEEP: Aren't these papers in these scientific journals usually peer-reviewed, as they say? Someone comes in, looks at the research.

PALCA: Well, exactly. And I think this is where people get--I mean, it shows what the peer review process really can and cannot do, because when a peer reviewer looks at a paper, he or she's going to say, `Yes, that looks like a stem cell. Yes, these are the right tests to show what it's claiming to show.' But they're not going to say, `Gee, I wonder if this is completely made up?' Or, `Gee, I wonder if the caption says this is from an individual patient, is it really that or is it something else?' I mean, there's--it's a difference between looking at a piece of work from a forensic, like a detective, like you think it might be criminal, vs. looking a a piece of work to see if it's scientifically consistent and valid and makes sense.

INSKEEP: It just looked plausible to people.

PALCA: Oh, it looked completely plausible.

INSKEEP: They didn't try to replicate the research or anything like that.

PALCA: Well, no, because these guys had been working on it for months.

INSKEEP: Well, now what does this mean for some of the other discoveries and accomplishments that this same team of Korean scientists has claimed? They claimed they cloned a dog.

PALCA: That's right, and right now, I think just about anything this team has claimed to have done is coming under intense scrutiny. There was a report from today in Seoul that there was a confirmation that Snuppy the dog was really cloned. But the Seoul National University panel that's been doing the official investigation says they haven't made up their--it hasn't made up its mind yet.

Then there was a paper last year which got this Korean team on the scientific map, so to speak, when they said, `Well, we have made this first patient-specific--this one cloned stem cell line.'

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PALCA: But now that paper is getting intense scrutiny, and it's possible that will unravel as well.

INSKEEP: There is really a Snuppy, I take it.

PALCA: Well, there's a dog, yes.

INSKEEP: ...(Unintelligible).

PALCA: It's an Afghan hound. The question is, was it cloned or not?

INSKEEP: Now what does this do to the field of stem cell research, all these revelations?

PALCA: Well, I think it's--you know, it's a blow, I mean, there's no question about it. And the stem cell researchers that I've talked to are just very depressed because they realize this is, you know, a black eye for the field, and they would like to think that this work was valid. A lot of them have gone to Seoul to see--you know, to learn how to do it. It's not going to end this attempt to make these patient-specific stem cells, because as you said, they could lead to very important therapy, maybe. And so there's a bunch of teams around the world that say, `We're still going to try to do this,' and there's teams in this country that are waiting permission from review panels, and there's teams in the UK. So this probably will happen. If it's possible, it will happen.

INSKEEP: Joe, thanks very much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joe Palca.

This is NPR News.

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