Corante

About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Emolecules
ChemSpider
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
PubChem
Not Voodoo
DailyMed
Druglib
Clinicaltrials.gov

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
Kilomentor
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
ChemBark
Realizations in Biostatistics
Chemjobber
Pharmalot
ChemSpider Blog
Pharmagossip
Med-Chemist
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
SimBioSys
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Business|Bytes|Genes|Molecules
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Depth-First
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa


Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
FuturePundit
Aetiology
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Sciencebase
Pharyngula
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net


Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
GruntDoc
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine


Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem


Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Instapundit
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus


Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« My Shopping List | Main | Plenty of Tar to Go Around »

January 9, 2006

Stem Cell Disaster

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

Update: Since the site was down most of Tuesday, I'm leaving this post up another day. Things have only worsened since I put it up, though. . .

I've been withholding my comments on the South Korean stem cell controversy, waiting to see how the story finally settled out. Well, it's good and settled now: the entire enterprise was a fraud. Here's a timeline of the whole sorry business, for people who need a recap. Start at the bottom of that page to experience it in the most painfully realistic way.

My first impulse, in the manner of anyone belonging to a group (biomedical researchers) whose reputations have been dented by such a case, is to point out that, yes, "the system worked". The fraudulent research was discovered and rooted out, papers were retracted, funding lost, brows slapped, all of it. And it hasn't taken that long, either. It's useful to point these things out to people who would like to throw mud on the whole enterprise of science.

See, for example, this blog review of a recent book on scientific fraud. Contrary to its repeated assertions, scientists do indeed realize that fraud happens, because every working scientist has seen it. For starters, most large academic departments have tales of grad students or post-docs whose work could never be trusted. And all of us in research have run into papers in the literature whose techniques won't reproduce, no matter what, and the suspicions naturally grow that they were the product of exaggeration or wishful thinking. The number of possible publications sins alone is huge: yields of chemical reactions get padded, claims of novelty and generality get inflated, invalidating research from other labs doesn't get cited.

It's painful for me to admit it, but this kind of thing goes on all the time. And as long as the labs are staffed with humans, we're not going to be able to get rid of it. The best we can do is discourage it and correct it when we can.

But takes me to the second standard impulse that strikes in these situations, which is to ask what in the world these people were thinking. That's what's always puzzled me about major scientific fraud. The more interesting your work is, the more fame you stand to gain from your results, the more certain you are to be found out if you fake it. There are obscure areas that you could forge and fake around in for years, and journals in which you could publish your phony results without anyone ever being the wiser. Of course, by definition those won't do you much good - heck, you might as well do real work by that point.

But faking the big ones, the worldwide-headline national-hero stuff - you can't get away with that for long, and Professor Hwang didn't. The closest parallels I can think of are the recent Jan Hendrik Schoen case and the thirty-year-old Summerlin mouse scandal. (These and several other infamous cases are summarized here and here. I honestly find it hard to believe that there are others of that magnitude that anyone got away with.

I've never been able to imagine the state of mind of someone involved in this kind of thing. There you are, famous for something you've completely made up. In front of you are the cameras and reporters, while behind you, off in the distance, are hundreds of other scientists around the world busily trying to reproduce your amazing results. Every minute, they get closer to finding you out. How can anyone smile for the television crews under such conditions?

It's tempting to speculate about the state of the Korean scientific establishment and the role of Korea culture itself in this latest blowup. But such things have happened everywhere. The Korean factor certainly led to Hwang being an instant national figure with his face on every magazine and a dozen microphones trained on him wherever he turned. But it's not a Korean failing that did him in, it's a human one.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Biological News


COMMENTS

1. Kevin Foley on January 10, 2006 5:12 PM writes...

One wonders if there is more scientific fraud in academia or industry? I've never seen any data on the latter, but given that the average drug project takes 10+ years to reach fruition, and often involves 100's of scientists, fraud should be less easy to cover up in industry. No one person is in charge of a project from start to finish.

When one hears about fraud in the biotech/pharma industry, it usually seems to involve squelching unfavorable clinical trial results (which has been in the news quite a bit recently). Sort of fraud by omission more than faking data.

Permalink to Comment

2. Milo on January 10, 2006 6:02 PM writes...

How this will affect the public’s overall opinion of science? Within the scientific community, we can all shake our heads and talk about the foolishness of fraud and know that the majority of research is believable. The general public, however, may start questioning (if they aren’t already) the value and integrity of our research.

Padding reaction yields or giving out honorary authorships is one thing, but this just undermines the whole scientific establishment.

Permalink to Comment

3. RKN on January 11, 2006 9:43 AM writes...

But takes me to the second standard impulse that strikes in these situations, which is to ask what in the world these people were thinking. That's what's always puzzled me about major scientific fraud.

  Reviewing the chronology of events, it's not clear to me that Hwang's intention was to deliberately deceive anybody, i.e. perpetrate a fraud. I heard a rather extensive radio interview with researchers who were evidently familiar with Hwang, his lab, and his research, who said that this disgrace was particularly unfortunate because Hwang quite probably did have the scientific and technological expertise to accomplish (given more time) what his paper claimed he already had.

  One possible explanation for how this could have happened is simply that Hwang and his collaborators were over anxious to get their findings published fast. Assuming Hwang was aware of the false data, nevertheless maybe he was confident that he really could experimentally reproduce these results, as others have suggested, given a little more time. I'm sure he intended to continue publishing in this area. If so, it was a severe lapse of good judgment on Hwang's part, with dire consequences, but not, I think, a deliberate scientific fraud.

Permalink to Comment

4. JSinger on January 11, 2006 9:47 AM writes...

One wonders if there is more scientific fraud in academia or industry?

One of my favorite things about industry work is that negative results mean something. (Admittedly, this is less true further back in the pipeline where Derek is than down in development.)

I get a project and my job is to get the right answer. I get paid, positive or negative. You're not in that position where p = 0.04 means a degree or a faculty position and 0.06 means two more years of serfdom (or law school). And *that* is where the vast majority of fraud happens -- stuff that's mostly right, probably, maybe, but needs a facelift so the author can get the hell out. Not falsification on the scale of Hwang or Schon.

Permalink to Comment

5. JSinger on January 11, 2006 9:55 AM writes...

Assuming Hwang was aware of the false data, nevertheless maybe he was confident that he really could experimentally reproduce these results, as others have suggested, given a little more time.

Absolutely. Cloning has a huge voodoo component to it, where things mysteriously work in some hands and not others and I'm sure Hwang thought he could get it working eventually and that failure to replicate meanwhile by others would be written off to magic.

On the other hand, a) fabricating data is 100% fraud, whatever the relation to the underlying science and b) given the consent issues and the lying about those, it seems clear to me that Hwang is generally a scumbag.

Permalink to Comment

6. Derek Lowe on January 11, 2006 10:16 AM writes...

That explanation - "well, I'll get it to work, I'm sure, and no one will be the wiser" - had occurred to me, too. But the revelation that the 2004 paper was also concocted makes this even worse than it was already.

Publishing two huge, splashy papers over that amount of time, when you still haven't gotten anything to work yet. . .I think that's crossing over the line from "showing extremely bad judgment" to "delusional". (You could argue that one paper would be evidence that the line had been crossed, too, of course).

Permalink to Comment

7. RKN on January 11, 2006 10:24 AM writes...

Deliberate fabrication of data is 100% fraud, agreed. But it wasn't clear to me based on the chronology Derek linked that this was deliberate on Hwang's part. The Dec. 23rd investigation by the Seoul University concluded some of results in Hwang's 2005 paper were fabricated, but didn't elaborate on how they concluded this, as opposed to it being a series of mistakes and faulty experimentation, as Hwang earlier had said.

I'm not trying to defend Hwang in any way, but merely to suggest a possible answer to Derek's "second impulse."

Permalink to Comment

8. Milo on January 11, 2006 11:52 AM writes...

JSinger,

One of my favorite things about industry work is that negative results mean something.

Could one also say that there is more oversight as well as more to lose in industry? I would think that if a company is spending a whole bunch of money for the discovery of a drug, they would take an interest in the quality of the work. If a researcher lies about their results, that costs the company $$ and they (the company) may fire the researcher.

I like the point that industry pays you for information. Good or bad. Academics seem to think that finding out something does not work means that they are bad researchers. I wonder how much the "publish or perish" mentality plays into this.

Permalink to Comment

9. GATC on January 11, 2006 3:00 PM writes...

As I stated in my analysis of 30 December over at the Medicine Vault, this is more of an indication of persistent problems with the peer review system amplified by complications arising from the current IP climate. Sure, the fraud was eventually discovered in this case, but if the editors and reviewers were doing their jobs properly, the simple problem of duplicated figures should have been detected way before the press run. It now looks like we will need to subject these “gee-wiz” types of papers to a higher level of scrutiny. It is sad that things have to come to this, but using stem cell lines as an example, most likely we soon will have to be submitting our biological reagents to an authentication service prior to publication much like nucleic acid sequences should be deposited in GenBank prior to submission (Hum, who would that be? Anyone got a little VC they need to unload? I smell a business opportunity.). Previously, when one published a paper in a respectable journal, they were required to provide cell lines, microbial strains, reagents, etc. upon request for confirmation studies by their peers. There would be hell to pay if a colleague couldn’t get your system to work in their lab. Obviously this would not have been possible with proprietary stem cell lines particularly if they are of human origin.
As for fraudulent papers arising from industry, I wouldn’t say that the situation is any worse or better in this sector of the scientific community. However from my own experience, I do know that the best data often is not published until well after the fact (usually as part of the literature dump prior to late clinical studies and subsequent registration). I’ve seen a lot of early discovery crap published simply because it is negative data and nothing else would be done with it. If you are lucky enough to be in a BigPharma department that encourages publications, this may be all you have to work with until the compound, target, etc. matures along the pipeline. Sad but true.

Permalink to Comment

10. Duane on January 11, 2006 4:29 PM writes...

I'm sure he felt that he would be able to get it to work in time, and thus the discovery risk was minimal.

But wasn't the timing of all this kindof tied to a one-upsmanship game with the US scientists trying to work the ESC issue in Congress, and the California funding referendum, and thus grabbing data wherever they could without doing much more than reading it? I wonder how much the embryonic stem cell and therapeutic cloning enthusiasts' zeal to lossen the funding spigot right at that political juncture contributed to the scandal.

Permalink to Comment

11. JSinger on January 11, 2006 5:09 PM writes...

Milo - I should have elaborated better but that's exactly my point. In industry, mistakenly declaring good news at one stage pretty much always leads to a much more expensive failure at the next. It has a totally different risk-reward balance than academia, where the currency is publication, negative results are essentially unpublishable and the consequences for unreproducible claims are minimal. The pressures on me now are to have the correct result, not the publishable result like in my postdoc.

RKN - I really don't see how the Hwang papers could have possibly arisen by any innocent mixup. Even before you get to his lying about the source of the eggs.

GATC - People (reviewers, editors and readers) don't read a paper with an eye towards spotting duplicated figures. As with the Van Parijs case and the grad student in Francis Collins' lab, something so obvious in hindsight isn't obvious if you're not looking for it. And as I said, failure to readily reproduce a cloning result isn't an obvious red flag the way it would be in just about anything else.

Duane - Absolutely, I agree. The stem cell crowd, in the US anyway, loves to play politics and I'd be surprised if that didn't help some of the sloppiness slip through.

Permalink to Comment

12. Cryptic Ned on January 11, 2006 5:23 PM writes...

Absolutely. Cloning has a huge voodoo component to it, where things mysteriously work in some hands and not others and I'm sure Hwang thought he could get it working eventually and that failure to replicate meanwhile by others would be written off to magic.

Yes, I saw several articles in the popular press in the wake of Hwang's results, explaining the magic that enabled them to do it and nobody else to replicate it. The dexterity of Koreans with chopstick-like egg-squeezing tweezers; the round-the-clock work schedules and zero days of vacation a year; talking to the eggs and keeping them warm; the extreme prevalence and lack of controversy around IVF in Korea.

Permalink to Comment

13. RKN on January 11, 2006 7:51 PM writes...

RKN - I really don't see how the Hwang papers could have possibly arisen by any innocent mixup.

Which is why we'd need to hear Hwang's explanation before concluding this was a deliberate fraud.

Permalink to Comment

TRACKBACKS

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Stem Cell Disaster:

What were they thinking? from blogs for industry
Derek Lowe ponders the S. Korean stem cell debacle. It's painful for me to admit it, but this kind of thing goes on all the time. And as long as the labs are staffed with humans, we're not going to be able to get rid of it. The best we can do is disc... [Read More]

Tracked on January 9, 2006 9:05 PM


EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO A FRIEND

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):




RELATED ENTRIES
Drug Repurposing
The Smallest Drugs
Life Is Too Short For Some Journal Feeds
A New Look at Phenotypic Screening
Small Molecules - Really, Really Small
InterMune Bought
Citable Garbage
The Palbociclib Saga: Or Why We Need a Lot of Drug Companies