On this week’s stem cell news

A couple of weeks ago, a research team from Japan reported in the journal Nature that it had found that mature, differentiated mouse cells could be reprogrammed into a more pleuripotent, embryonic, stem cell state simply by subjecting the cells to mild stress such as exposure to acid.  I thought about blogging on it but had not read the paper.  My son sent an email asking, “Is this legit?” and, because it was a Nature publication, I replied that I thought it probably was.  It was dutifully reported in the general press.  Maybe you saw those reports.

This week brings the news that the paper is being called into question because of “irregularities.”  Some readers noted that some of the photos in the paper appear not to be what they are said to be, and the institute that supported the research is investigating.  Also, it is said that outside investigators have so far been unable to reproduce the results.

Nothing has been retracted; the problem with the photos is claimed to have been due to a mix-up, and a rush to judgment should be avoided.  But then again, that is worth remembering with regard to initial positive reports about science in the general press.  Reproducibility is at the core of good science, and unless the findings can be independently confirmed, they cannot stand.  That is yet to be determined.  We also might wonder why problems with photos were not detected by the journal’s editorial and review process.

Again, we’ll have to wait for more about all of this.

But for purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that care should be taken to avoid picking up and running with initial reports, in this case ones that might appear favorable to the ethical positions of writers and readers here.  Sometimes there is a rush to create “scoreboards” to argue that ethical research is also winning out on the scientific merits.  Ultimately, we should do only that research that may be done ethically, and work with the best results that research yields.  I am reminded not to get ahead of the data.

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