Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Stem cell drama continues (and "magic hands" are raised)

I'm now thinking that whoever takes up the whole World Stem Cell Hub/Hwang and Schatten story is going to get not just a nice book, but also a major motion picture, action figures, and a spin-off reality show out of the deal. Here's the latest, via
Now that Schatten and Hwang have split, observers here [Korea] say the three researchers should return to Korea to prevent the technology leaking. Schatten severed ties with his Hwang last month, citing ethical breaches in the procurement of human eggs.

"He secured Korean researchers who have key technology in embryonic stem cells. He could have everything for free after weeding out Hwang," said Sun Kyung, head of the Korean Artificial Organ Center.

"Schatten should send back the researchers to Korea without condition," he said.

However, one of three researchers, identified by her initial P, has apparently gone to ground with even her family members having been unable to contact her for over a week.

The woman researcher has exceptional "hand skills" in transplanting the nucleus of somatic cells to human eggs and contributed with Schatten to successfully clone the embryos of a monkey in October 2004. Whenever Hwang talked about his groundbreaking researchers, he mentioned the crucial role of P in his work.

P, you'll recall, is also one of the junior researchers in Hwang's team who was also an egg donor for the project.

Set aside for the time being the ethical questions about letting technology developed in Korea "leak" to a research team in the United States. Instead, let's talk about P's "hand skills".

And here, I feel perfectly comfortable saying that the real-life happenings have taken a novelistic turn, because I use that novel in my Ethics in Science classes. The novel in question is Cantor's Dilemma by Carl Djerassi, and one of the central issues in it is the relationship between the scientists who come up with theories to be tested and the scientists who execute the experimental tests. It's no surprise to anyone who's worked in science that some people are better in the lab than others. (Exercise for the graduate student: See if your P.I. can set up and successfully run your experiment from start to finish.) In the interests of getting good results fast (which is to say, faster than competing labs), many research groups figure out who has the "magic hands" -- who can coax the materials on hand into performing reliably -- and those skilled experimentalists are put on the top-priority projects. Others in the lab are supposed to try to learn from their technique, or at least stay out of their way.

All well and good except for an important feature of scientific practice - experimental results are supposed to be reproducible. This is not just a matter of a scientist with "hand skills" being able to replicate an experiment reliably. It is also important that other scientists, even scientists in different labs, should be able to repeat the experiments and get the same results.

So here's where things get tricky: Your research group wants to get to a discovery first. You deploy your experimentalists with golden hands. The experimentalists achieve success! You report your success (including the experimental details of how you proved your theory or achieved your technological breakthrough). And, if your achievement is sufficiently important, other research groups will try to replicate your work.

What if they can't?

One possibility is that the experimental challenges are significant and the experimentalists in these other research groups just need to practice the techniques for a while before they will be able to reproduce the work.

Another is that your description of the experimental procedure has omitted some crucial bit of information about the experiment. It could be something your golden handed experimentalists don't even realize is an important variable. (It could, on the other hand, be a detail you've been vague about in your report so as to discourage too much competition in the neighborhood of your experimental system.)

Yet another possibility is that you didn't observe what you think you did. The inability of other labs to replicate your results is supposed to clue you in to this possibility. It ought to send your team back to the lab, running the experiments again with a skeptical eye.

Or maybe, your golden handed experimentalists got great results by cheating somehow (either rigging the experiment or just making up results).

The notion that if you report full experimental details, other trained scientists in your field ought to be able (eventually) to run the experiments and get the same results you're reporting is central to science. Why experiments matter is they adjudicate between theories on the basis of empirical data that is (at least in theory) accessible to everyone in the scientific community. It is not enough, even with an experiment in hand, to convince oneself that one's theory is right; you need to be able to persuade a skeptical jury of your peers.

But that jury of peers is also your competition. If they can't replicate what you've done, is it because there's something wrong with it ... or because they're messing with you? Hey, if the research you're reporting is important enough, eventually someone should be able to replicate it. Assuming, of course, you've really included all the relevant details of the experimental protocol, and that they have someone on the team with enough "hand skills" to carry out the experiment.

Here, I'm assuming a bit of research that one wants to report. Things could get a lot more complicated if we assume the science in question is proprietary.

Bringing this all back to the saga of Hwang, Schatten, and P, what should we make of the possible defection of P from Hwang's lab to Schatten's? (I don't want to give away too much of the plot if you haven't read it, but Cantor's Dilemma features a similar defection ...) If P is the only one in the Hwang lab who is skilled enough to make the nuclear somatic transfer happen, then the Hwang lab now has some real problems on the experimental front. Meanwhile, if P has really defected to the Schatten lab, then that lab now has a skilled set of hands it didn't have before.

But if P is the only one who can do the nuclear somatic transfer successfully with human cells, this is problematic. It's not enough that P can make it work over and over. Scientists want to figure out what they're doing precisely enough that other scientists are able to do it, too. So unless P can successfully teach other scientists to make it work, something is fishy here.

I don't know what to say about whether having donated eggs to the project should increase or decrease P's credibility here. It is probably worth noting, however, that egg donation is a fairly difficult process for the donor. And, you don't even get nudie magazine to look at.

It will be interesting to see how the battle between competing interests of individual scientists and the interests of the scientific community as a whole turn out in this case.

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At 11:12 AM, Blogger BotanicalGirl said...

I agree that this whole thing is very dramatic. And I don't care how 'magical' her hands are...some other scientist on this planet should be able to replicate the results. My last lab used a very tricky membrane patch-clamp technique occasionally. It took two weeks of training and even then your success rate was 10% or less. But new people could indeed learn it. If practice doesn't make perfect for nuclear transfer, something is definitely fishy.


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