Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Stem Cell Mistake Shows Why Science Beats Religion

Haruko Obokata anouncing the discovery
Image: Kyodo/Reuters
Acid bath stem-cell scientist can't reproduce results - health - 19 December 2014 - New Scientist

Unlike religion, science is a self-correcting process designed to minimise the opportunities for mistakes, statistical anomalies and downright fraud to pass unnoticed into the general body of science, and so ensure that the answers scientists believe they have found are at least a close approximation to the truth, and that our understanding of the world moves ever closer to the truth.

This example concerns an exciting and, if true, revolutionary 2012 'discovery' by a Charles Vacanti of Harvard Medical School working with Haruko Obokata and others at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan that seemed to show it was possible to turn adult cells back to stem cells and so potentially grow an entirely new clone from something as simple as a drop of blood. The potential for organ replacement and regenerative therapies, for example were enormous - the sort of discovery which can result in Nobel Prize, and the lure of that level of acclaim may be part of the problem.

The technique was simplicity itself - simply subjecting the cell to stressful environment such as immersion in an acidic medium, the method used by the Riken Institute team. By using cells from mice which had been bred with a gene which glows green in the presence of a protein, Oct-4, only found in stem cells. The conversion to 'pluripotent' (i.e. stem) cells was then confirmed by detecting a green glow in the cells.

Now, after an eight-month investigation, Haruko Obokata had admitted that it has been impossible to reproduce the results or replicate the experiments and has apologised and resigned from the Riken Institute. No independent team has been able to reproduce these reported results either. A claim which looked suspiciously too good to be true has been shown to be just that. Obokata had been found guilty of scientific misconduct last April and the two papers announcing the results had been withdrawn last July. One of the authors, Yoshiki Sasai, who had been cleared of misconduct but criticised for his lack of oversight of the project, was found dead, having apparently committed suicide.

Obokata says she is puzzled by the results and attempted to blame the conditions under which she was expected to reproduce her experiments for the enquiry. The verification team had actually been able to detect the green glow reported by Obokata but not at sufficient levels to confirm pluripotency and all other tests for pluripotency had failed, so this looks like a case of misinterpretation or at least over-optimistic interpretation and a lack of verification before rushing into print rather than a deliberate attempt at scientific fraud. Never-the-less, since meticulous checking and attention to detail is essential in science, this case represents scientific incompetence sufficient to ruin a career.

Contrast this to the approach of creationist pseudoscientists who have no compunction about printing articles based on bad science, never submitted to peer-review and even based on earlier 'research' which the authors have since retracted. For example, the supposed lack of dust on the surface of the moon which should have been much deeper according to calculations which have since been shown to be wildly wrong and have been withdrawn, is still waved around as 'proof' of a young Earth. Similarly, the early misidentification of the tooth of an extinct peccary as possibly that of an ape (not a hominid) and which was withdrawn five years later, is still quoted by creationists as part of the body of scientific theory of human evolution.

The difference between science and religion is that science avoids preconceived notions of what the conclusion should be and derives it from the evidence; religion knows what the conclusion is by 'faith' and carefully selects, misrepresents or even falsifies the evidence to make it conform. In religion, the conclusion is sacred; in science, only the truth is sacred.

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