Friday, January 06, 2006

BBC quotes scientists on Hwang-gate impact on stem cell research

From the BBC:

"I don't think it has set back research, but clearly we weren't as far forward as we thought we were," says Jack Price, professor of developmental neurobiology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

From a biological standpoint, says Jack Price, there are no fundamental reasons why embryonic stem cells cannot be tailored to individual patients. So it should simply be a matter of time before a team repeats this scientific first.

But the efficiency with which such cell lines are made will determine whether such a technique can be of clinical use.

"I personally have doubts whether creating personalised stem cell lines will be a practical and cost-effective means of treating most serious diseases, as and when we get to using embryonic stem cells in regenerative medicine," says Peter Andrews.

Professor Peter Andrews, a stem cell expert at the University of Sheffield, broadly agrees: "Whether or not the cloning works has very little impact on most of the research going on into human embryonic stem cells," he told the BBC News website.

"Most of the work on understanding the biology of these cells, how to use them, how to turn them into particular cell types for eventual applications, will come out of work on cell lines derived from surplus embryos not cloned ones."

***Of the issue of publishing in high impact journals, such as Science or Nature-->

Researchers are keen to point out that Dr Hwang and his colleagues did not address many of the biggest obstacles to the development of therapies based on embryonic stem cells.

Reliably directing the differentiation of stem cells into other tissue types remains a significant hurdle for researchers. Animal studies have shown that simply injecting "naive" stem cells into the body can cause the formation of tumours.

Scientifically speaking, the South Korean scandal may not have had very much effect on the fields of cloning or stem cell research, but it may also raise questions about how scientific success is measured.

"There is so much pressure internationally on a scientist to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals. You get nothing for coming second," says Dr Mehmet. [IPBiz note: And Judge Posner makes such a big deal about the patent race...]

Peer review is the "refereed" process scientists use to screen papers before they are published in the academic literature.

"If you publish, like Hwang did, in a high impact journal, it gets very widely read. And unfortunately, advancement in the university sector and research financing from grant-funding bodies rely heavily on the impact factor of an individual's research."

**Of Hwang-->

Impact factor is a measure of importance of scientific journals. It is calculated each year by the Institute for Scientific Information for those journals which it tracks.

Dr Mehmet points out that this system can be unfair because considered, detailed work that can take a long time to complete can be published in specialist journals with lower impact factors.

The Hwang affair also serves as a reminder that peer review is not foolproof, and that certain things have to be taken on trust.

Scientists admit that few people raised suspicions about Dr Hwang's landmark paper on personalised stem cells.

In fact, there was good reason to believe that Hwang might have succeeded in an area where others were making slower progress, experts say. The South Korean government had reportedly ploughed more than 26 billion won ($26m) into Dr Hwang's research.

In 2004, Professor Price visited Hwang's facility in South Korea: "It was amazing," he says, "as close to a cottage industry in stem cells as you can get. So many people, so many resources. They were working very hard on this. I was prepared to take that on face value."


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