Last week, Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make adult stem cells revert to an embryonic (and much more medically useful) state. Within days, another scientist unconnected to Yamanaka, claimed to have produced such cells from human heart tissue and injected them back into human patients in a clinical trial. What's more, the researcher, Hisashi Moriguchi, claimed that a measure of his patients' heart function improved by 41.5% after the transplant.
It's hard to say which is crazier: The claims themselves, or the speed with which Moriguchi's story has completely fallen apart. Evidence suggests that these kind of re-programmed adult stem cells might be more likely to turn cancerous. Because of that, one of the first questions people asked was about the ethics committee that approved the research. Moriguchi said he worked for Harvard and that Harvard had signed off on his clinical trial.
And that's where things got nuts. Because Harvard had never heard of this study. And Moriguchi does not work there, anyway. In fact, this might not even be his field — the only professional affiliation that New Scientist could track down for him was as a visiting researcher in cosmetic surgery at The University of Tokyo. Also: The transplants may or may not have actually happened and Moriguchi might be plagiarizing images from other scientists. The worst part about this (from my perspective as a journalist) is that it was stem cell researchers who had to call out the fraud, after a major Japanese newspaper swallowed the story hook, line, and sinker.
You can follow the story much more in-depth at IPSCell.com, the blog of UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler.
Check out this post of Knoepfler's — written the day before the Moriguchi madness began — for more information on the risks of reprogrammed adult stem cells, the ongoing safety research, and proposed time-tables for when we will likely try these things out on humans for real.