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Snubbed for a Nobel?

A surgeon sues the Nobel Assembly for excluding him from last year’s prize awarded for regenerative science, but stem cell scientists are skeptical of his claims.

By | March 14, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, JONATHUNDERIn a personal narrative, Rongxiang Xu wrote that in 2003, Chinese and Swedish reporters wondered how many Nobel prizes Xu would win for his impressive work on regenerative science. To their flattery he replied, “I did not conduct scientific researches for any prizes, as ‘God’ had endowed me with this mission and the enthusiasm; all I could do was realize my true value as a human being.”

Still, he was stunned last October when John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on reprogramming mature cells into versatile, pluripotent ones. His own work, Xu claims, was just as critical, if not more so, to the field of regenerative science, and he is suing the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden for unjustly injuring his “reputation, occupation, and profession” and exposing him to “contempt and ridicule.” On February 22, the Assembly filed to transfer the case from a state court in Orange County, California, to a federal court in the same area. 

Xu is a Chinese surgeon living in Los Angeles and the founder of the Beijing- and L.A.-based regenerative science corporation MEBO. In his complaint to the court, Xu says that the Nobel committee falsely stated that the scientists who won the Nobel “unlocked” the potential for pluripotency in differentiated cells. He claims that he not only unlocked this potential before the winners, but that he did so naturally, without genetically manipulating cells as Yamanaka and Gurdon have. However, Xu has not published his work in any of the millions of mainstream peer-reviewed journals cataloged by Pubmed.

By awarding Yamanaka and Gurdon the Nobel for their stem cell work, Xu says the Assembly has undermined his reputation. The complaint reads: “Dr. Xu’s main interest is in rehabilitating his dominant positions as the owner [and] pioneer of [this] scientific achievement.” A spokesperson from the Nobel Foundation told The Scientist that the Assembly had never heard of Rongxiang Xu before this case, and that it is “a lawsuit which we find frivolous.”

According to his personal accounts in the complaint and on the MEBO website as of March 13, more than 15 years ago, Xu discovered a blend of regenerative nutrients that helps wounds heal by returning undamaged cells at the wound site to a pluripotent state. His proof was that these cells did not express keratin 19, a protein previously found in some skin stem cells, until after they were treated with the nutrient cocktail. The cocktail was a stepping-stone for the product now called moist exposed burn ointment (MEBO).  Xu’s son, Kevin, told The Scientist that those discoveries have since allowed 20 million burn victims to restore their normal skin, and according to the MEBO website, the treatments may have much broader applications, including regenerating organs and curing cancer.

Xu’s son says his father did not submit his results to mainstream peer-reviewed journals because “he did not want to spend a lot of time writing articles for publication.” Xu did, however, publish in a journal he edits, called The Chinese Journal of Burns Wounds & Surface Ulcers, and with two other doctors, he wrote a book on MEBO techniques in 2004. For the past two decades, his findings were touted in online press releases and news stories in Chinese newspapers; a short 1992 documentary features his research; and at least one US company sees promise in Xu’s treatments. Botanical drug development company Skingenix, also based in Los Angeles, is sponsoring Phase II clinical trials to test whether MEBO products help heal foot ulcers and burns. These studies are not designed to shed light on whether MEBO and stem cells share anything in common, however, and Skingenix declined to comment on this story.

When Cell published Yamanaka’s study in 2006 describing how four transcription factors transform mature cells into stem cells—one of the papers that would later win Yamanaka the Nobel—Xu issued a public announcement in a major Chinese newspaper. “I don’t know if Yamanaka knows my dad, but my dad wanted to notify the public of China about him,” says Kevin Xu, who spoke with The Scientist in lieu of his father. “My dad wanted to clarify that regenerative potential is innate and there is no need to excessively engineer it.”

But without peer-reviewed evidence, the stem cell community is largely unsupportive of Xu’s claims.  “Dr. Xu says he [induces pluripotent cells] with no genetic manipulation, but he has not shown it,” said Thomas Graf, a stem cell biologist at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain. “Saying it is one thing; proving it is another.” If Xu’s treatment transforms differentiated cells into pluripotent ones, Graf said, Xu would need to demonstrate that the treated cells can form neurons, heart cells, and other cell types, as Yamanaka’s stem cells can. The protein keratin 19 does not a stem cell make, he noted. Even if they were pluripotent, he adds that without published evidence, it’s impossible to tell whether the rejuvenated cells derived directly from mature and damaged ones, rather than from other parts of the tissue.

Douglas Sipp, a stem cell policy expert at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, mentions Xu’s lack of peer-reviewed evidence as well. “Yamanaka’s papers are cited thousands of times, which means the technology he introduced has had a huge impact on the stem cell community,” he said. “If you don’t publish the details of your work in peer-reviewed journals that are accessible to the international community in such detail that they can reproduce the studies themselves, you might be doing exciting things, but it is unreasonable to expect the community to recognize it.”

Xu’s disappointment in being left out of the Nobel Prize is not unique. The award is limited to three recipients, and because science is an inherently collaborative endeavor, someone inevitably gets excluded. For instance, the 2008 prize for the discovery of green fluorescent protein skipped over Douglas Prasher, the molecular biologist who first cloned the gene for it. And last year, Internet commenters mumbled that James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, should have also been included in last year’s prize with Yamanaka and Gurdon because in a 2007 issue of Science he reported a genetic cocktail to induce pluripotency in human cells independent of Yamanaka. But this is the first time that a scientist will take the Medical Nobel Assembly to court.

“I hope it’s the first and last time it happens,” said Graf.

The court has yet to schedule a trial date.

Corrections (March 14, 2013): This story has been updated from its original version to correctly reflect that James Thomson's 2007 paper was published in Science, not Cell. Additionally, the story was updated on March 21 to reflect that Xu claims to return undamaged cells at the wound site to the pluripotent state, not cells that have been damaged. The Scientist regrets the errors.

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Comments

Avatar of: Steve Hales

Steve Hales

Posts: 3

March 14, 2013

This news may be a corrolary of the "Streisand effect.". Xu's unseemly action end up harming his reputation and exposing him to contempt and ridicule.

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 33

March 14, 2013

Xu's court filing, and this article, should be labeled "Advertisement".

March 14, 2013

Good grief.

March 14, 2013

I think in publishing this article you have played into Xu's strategy of free publicity. The Nobel will never be awarded to unpublished work. This implies no peer-review as well. We all know it: Publish or perish. I think the Nobel Assembly should not show up in court, as it would be lowering their institution's dignity, and would open the door for fivolous litigation to future 'perceived' snubs.

Avatar of: JohnC

JohnC

Posts: 12

March 16, 2013

I find it amazing that such cases of physiscians being unaware of the basis of scientific research are still occurring. Fulfilling the Hypocratic oath doesn't absolutely require it, but common sense should.

Avatar of: Bob Pan

Bob Pan

Posts: 4

March 17, 2013

What you can show count! Real Practical application count!

Avatar of: pparker

pparker

Posts: 4

March 18, 2013

Give me a break.  This guys sounds like a fraud and is only interested in selling his magic potions. Any real scientist knows that if you don't publish your work, then it can't be checked by others, and hence it doesn't count as a discovery. 

The excuse of not publishing because "he did not want to spend a lot of time writing articles for publication” is laughable.  He seems to have plenty of time to conduct frivolous lawsuits. I'm sure he could have found one day out of his busy schedule to write up his results (beautiful data essentially writes itself).

What is really going on here is a father and son team are trying to get publicity to sell their magic cream to an emerging Chinese economy.

 People like this give science a bad name. 

Avatar of: FJScientist

FJScientist

Posts: 24

March 18, 2013

Please don't elevate this dimwit by indicating that his situation is even remotely similar to Prasher or any of the many deserving persons who have not received Nobels because it can be hard to narrow down the three most central contributors. This guy is not even on the map. 

Even if he had substantiated his claims to himself (which we don't know and therefore have to evaluate just how much of a nut-case he likely is), he decided to hide them from the world to commercially benefit from them. If his work is in fact helping others (again, who knows?), then he should derive his satisfaction from that. But no one should expect us, and certainly not the Nobel Committee, to believe his unsubstantiated claims.

Sadly, it sounds more like there is an element of senility in this story. Still, the son is obviously perpetuating this farce and should know better.

Avatar of: Ronald W

Ronald W

Posts: 10

March 18, 2013

All speculation aside, at the end of the day the Nobel Committee must prove something in regards to Dr. Xu's science.

If they can’t they will put themselves into a much more embarrassing position, but if it’s going to be that easy, why WOULDN'T they show up in court?

Avatar of: Dave G

Dave G

Posts: 1

March 18, 2013

I have to at least partially agree with Ronald, although there are some very compelling arguments here. 

But let me play the devil's advocate:

 

If this guy is willing to go against both the majority and tradition, it's possible there is something worthwhile behind these intentions.

 

Publicity is not equal to villainy, just like not being published in peer-review journals (while ill-advised) does not mean the capabilities don't exist. At the same time, Xu's science is patented, and therefore should be replicable.

 

Instead of making negative speculations, wouldn’t it be better to wait for the progress of the suit? The trial date is soon to be scheduled, after all.

 

Avatar of: ProfessorK

ProfessorK

Posts: 11

March 20, 2013

While I'll certainly be watching to see whether or not he succeeds, it's great to see someone challenging the iron bars of sciences peer-review system.

Avatar of: NRA

NRA

Posts: 5

March 20, 2013

I don't understand Graf's remark when he says Keratin-19 doesn't make a stem cell. According to many resources, it's undoubtedly a stem cell marker. What he said in this context doesn't make sense.

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

March 20, 2013

The personal narrative she mentions in the beginning is pretty interesting. Not the best English, but interesting.

Avatar of: ScientIFic

ScientIFic

Posts: 9

March 21, 2013

I'm surprised there aren't more people covering this. It's the first major lawsuit against Nobel. Which is actually kind of surprising considering the track record.

Avatar of: Dockell

Dockell

Posts: 8

March 21, 2013

I've been saying that for a long time. I mean, I'm not sure how strong Dr. Xu's case is. He'd certainly be better had his science been peer-reviewed. And in all honesty, his dreams of being known as the PIONEER of stem cell research might be dashed. But on the other hand, someone standing up to Nobel is noble. Excuse my play on words. Gooooood luck, Dr. Xu.

Avatar of: Dockell

Dockell

Posts: 8

March 21, 2013

And for what it's worth, "I'm sorry, despite the fact that you've discovered a way to regenerate skin cells and helped millions upon millions of people, we've never heard of you" definitely does not shine well upon Nobel.

Either they are admitting they aren't doing their research, or they are outright lying. It doesn't seem like a smart idea to NOT meet Xu in court.

Avatar of: Duncalicious

Duncalicious

Posts: 4

March 22, 2013

It's not like regard for the Nobel Assembly is at it's high point anyway...

March 22, 2013

What is the real reason Xu has not published his work in peer-reviewed journals. By all accounts, he should be a billionaire, so it doesn't seem like the time argument should work.

I have a feeling there is some legitimacy. Why take the road less traveled when you could be helping billions?

Avatar of: NRA

NRA

Posts: 5

March 22, 2013

Does anyone know where I can get more information into this guy's patents?

Avatar of: HStaley

HStaley

Posts: 6

March 22, 2013

Great job in putting together this article Amy. Any chance the Scientist could delve more into the history of Dr. Xu, or even the contrast between Xu and Yamanaka?

I'd love to see some more. Thanks for writing!

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

March 23, 2013

Found these while I was snooping around his page - well I guess it would be his company's page.

Patents: http://www.mebo-international.com/intellectual-property

Avatar of: ManofScience

ManofScience

Posts: 11

March 25, 2013

Even without peer-reviewed evidence, it is hard to discount much of what the nutrient composition has been able to do. I'm not saying we should immediately throw it onto the market, but helping 20 million people has to offer some sort of viability.

Avatar of: ScientIFic

ScientIFic

Posts: 9

March 25, 2013

The patents are really interesting. Besides them and this anecdote, what else do we have to go off in regards to the legitimacy of this treatment. Are they trying to bring this into the American market? Is it in Asian markets? And how long has it been there?

Avatar of: runscience

runscience

Posts: 1

March 26, 2013

anyway, i think the nobel commottee has done sth wrong firstly. beg it can respect the truth of somewhat folk scientist, waiting for its showing in the count.

Avatar of: Shu Ye

Shu Ye

Posts: 2

March 26, 2013

I donot think advertisement used in this situation is proper. For justice, all human have the right to say what he believes right. Just like Dr. Xu.

Avatar of: Shu Ye

Shu Ye

Posts: 2

March 26, 2013

Personally, everything do good to the whole human world should be encouraged. Before we know the real fact, we should quietly wait to see the verdict of the justice and law.

Avatar of: Aadil

Aadil

Posts: 1

March 27, 2013

Knowing truth is the key to everything, at least in science. So is the case here, atleast the scientific community is challenged and justice is to be done!

Avatar of: ScientIFic

ScientIFic

Posts: 9

March 28, 2013

Calling this an advertisement is definitely a bit harsh. There's definitely a validity in the fact that Xu is claiming for a distinction between natural and artificial methods of stem cell research. Doubting the benefits of natural as opposed to digging further into it is stupid.

Avatar of: RHein

RHein

Posts: 6

March 28, 2013

So if they are so legitimate, what has Xu been doing with his treatments? If these methods are capable of curing cancer, I'd certainly like to know how it can do that. There has to be a better explanation somewhere.

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

March 28, 2013

@RHein, here is one example of what he's been working on. From Xu's personal narrative:

"Our experiment lasted for four years, and we achieved twice the life aging expectations of rats. Such experimental results confirmed the identity of regeneration mechanism as another chance of human life which means the start of another world of human life. They also provided the preliminary answers to many questions bothered mankind for a long time. For the cancer research, the breakthrough could come from the fundamental laws of life needs. Our study showed that within twenty-four hours, all the cancer cells would die under the effects of regenerative substances, while the normal cells could be activated with the same regenerative substances."

Avatar of: NRA

NRA

Posts: 5

March 28, 2013

That's a great find, Lana. 

I looked a little deeper into that narrative, and it's funny because, there is actually a lot of allusion about Xu's experiences in Sweden.

Funny how he's met with Swedish journalists, yet the Assembly doesn't recognize him. He was right under their nose.

Avatar of: Dantheman76

Dantheman76

Posts: 3

March 29, 2013

This argument has gotten even more important after Watson's points about Genetic therapy. Regenerative medicine is where the medical field is heading. We've really gotta justify the natural vs. artificial argument. If there even is one.

Avatar of: DJW1223

DJW1223

Posts: 2

March 29, 2013

I've checked out Xu's patents. Thanks for that LanaR. That's really where the argument should be focused. It's pretty clear that there is a huge difference between the pluripotency Yamanaka has accomplished in the lab and Xu's treatments.

Avatar of: RHein

RHein

Posts: 6

March 29, 2013

So it basically sounds like the regenerative treatment helps to suffocate cancerous cells? That's very interesting. Thank you, Lana.

Avatar of: Ronald W

Ronald W

Posts: 10

March 30, 2013

I'm frankly surprised this isn't getting more attention. This is the most negative press Nobel has ever gotten. Although it seems like they are doing everything they can to keep this away from the presses.

Makes you wonder what Alfred Nobel would say...

Avatar of: HChapman

HChapman

Posts: 9

April 2, 2013

Regenerative medicine, it's the way to go. Genetic mapping has been wiped off the table. Embryonic stem cells also hit the wayside. Whether this is real still needs to be seen. But this is also the exact kind of thing we should look out for. Peer-reviewed journals be damned, we should be looking into all sorts of directions at this point.

Avatar of: Dantheman76

Dantheman76

Posts: 3

April 2, 2013

Couldn't agree more, Dan. And let's be honest, you don't really just make up the fact that you've been able to induce stem cells in situ. If you are trying to hack the industry, you'd probably have to come up with something a little closer to the vest.

And Nobel should man up and make this clarification.

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

April 2, 2013

Right. 

Why would a mogul (apparently he's a billionaire) like Dr. Xu have any interest in making more money. It's either about the fame or the science, and seeing as he's probably as famous as he can get in THE biggest country on the planet, there's not a whole lot of space to move up.

Is it for the science?

Avatar of: JWil85

JWil85

Posts: 4

April 3, 2013

Definitely frivolous. I hope Nobel doesn't bite on this.

Avatar of: HChapman

HChapman

Posts: 9

April 3, 2013

If you think about, what does Dr. Xu stand to gain that he doesn't already have? He's a billionaire, so it can't be about the money. He's one of the most famous doctors in the biggest country on the planet, so notoriety isn't there.

Would it really be worth it for him to go through all this trouble just to try and get a Nobel Prize? Even if he wins the lawsuit he probably won't get it. Signs are pointing to the fact that he could be doing it for the science.

Avatar of: RickyTicky

RickyTicky

Posts: 3

April 4, 2013

I'm not sure when it will be, but I feel like whenever this lawsuit wraps up, there is going to be some monumental clarification in the field of regenerative medicine. It's one of the fields most worth studying at the moment, and anyone who tells you differently is just plain wrong.

Avatar of: JWil85

JWil85

Posts: 4

April 4, 2013

There really isn't much to support that fact. If human regenerative capability was possible, I think we'd  have known that a long time ago. What ISN'T a farce about this field?

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

April 4, 2013

@JWil: The fact that it's based off the back of current stem cell tactics (at least in Xu's case) is a pretty good reason to say it's not a farce. We've been proving for at least a handful of years the ability to induce and exert influence over cells through studying cell pathways. 

Regenerative ability isn't but a step beyond that. 

Avatar of: Ronald W

Ronald W

Posts: 10

April 5, 2013

That couldn't be more untrue. Look at all the people his regenerative treatments have already helped.

Avatar of: RickyTicky

RickyTicky

Posts: 3

April 5, 2013

And this is far from the first type of regen med. to have an impact.

April 5, 2013

What is going to happen when when Nobel admits their (which I'm sure wont refer to as a mistake)? I'm interested in seeing the effect of this on medical research funding.

Avatar of: Ronald W

Ronald W

Posts: 10

April 6, 2013

Nobel might actually feel like there is a lot at stake here. That could be the reason for all of their hesitation, and trying to dance around the subject. Aren't they pretty close to getting cornered?

Avatar of: AReese

AReese

Posts: 3

April 6, 2013

What is the real difference between what Yamanaka is working on and what Xu has been doing? The meanings of the words "artfiicial" and "natural" aren't given very much context in the article. What's the nutrient treatment?

Avatar of: Dantheman76

Dantheman76

Posts: 3

April 6, 2013

I read part of what Cell published about Yamanaka. All of his work has been cultured in the lab, while Xu's has been applications that have induced stem cells inside the body. 

April 6, 2013

Well, maybe it's not as simple as it seems. Whole lot of talking though, without getting anywhere so far.

Avatar of: Ronald W

Ronald W

Posts: 10

April 8, 2013

It's a chess match alright.

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

April 8, 2013

The big difference between the two methodologies is that Xu's treatments happen in situ. That is, in the body.

Xu also claims that the way the term stem cell is currently used is incorrect. That's based on the fact that in the past clinical recognition has been given to the stem cell as a stage of a cell, rather than an actual cell. It's a cocoon as opposed to a type of buttefly.

Avatar of: AReese

AReese

Posts: 3

April 8, 2013

Thanks, LanaR! I really hope something good comes of this. 

Avatar of: JenniferHill02

JenniferHill02

Posts: 7

April 8, 2013

What's the best case here for Nobel? They lose a few hundred thousand and then go back to China. I don't see any reason this case gets any sort of credibility in America or other western markets.

Avatar of: RHBalance

RHBalance

Posts: 2

April 8, 2013

I think the biggest payoff is that the world recognizes there is another possible stem cell research with some significance. We've kind of been missing when the returns on embryonic started to falter. Just how I see it.

Avatar of: RickyTicky

RickyTicky

Posts: 3

April 8, 2013

Guys, I think the real merit here is the fact that Nobel had to be pushed to make any sort of concession on their admissions. It's hard to say what will be the gain for Xu. Doesn't seem like it will be monetary unless it's the best possible scenario. What that would be is anyone's guess.

But we still don't know, is this suit more like a gnat bugging an elephant or is there a real fight here?

Avatar of: JenniferHill02

JenniferHill02

Posts: 7

April 9, 2013

Is there anything else to read on this subject (either the research or the lawsuit)?

Avatar of: KSzucs

KSzucs

Posts: 3

April 9, 2013

Found an interesting correlated article on Reddit. Apparently Xu had some previous relationships in America. Unfortunately the article gets cut off, so I don't know what happens to the main character ;(

http://www.reddit.com/r/softscience/comments/1c10mf/dated_publication_holy_cross_ties_snubbed_chinese/

Avatar of: LanaR

LanaR

Posts: 7

April 10, 2013

Amazing how far back this product has reverted in America. It'd be good to see such a promising research regain it's ground. Hopefully the argument with Nobel will help.

Avatar of: BW012375

BW012375

Posts: 6

April 10, 2013

Amazing infographic with the finger. It makes you actually wonder about the promise of this research. It's certainly convincing, but obviously similar things have been passed around and not been true...

Avatar of: RHBalance

RHBalance

Posts: 2

April 10, 2013

I haven't seen it. Was wondering why they didn't actually link to that in the article. Where'd you find it? Reddit? Imgur?

Avatar of: ManofScience

ManofScience

Posts: 11

April 11, 2013

Haven't seen the photo, but would really be interested in taking a look at it. I'll have to keep my eyes out for that though. 

Avatar of: Emmathegreat

Emmathegreat

Posts: 1

April 11, 2013

We're counting on Nobel to guide the knowledge of the scientific community? That's like asking Bill O'Reilly to choose the next President.

Avatar of: JenniferHill02

JenniferHill02

Posts: 7

April 11, 2013

Thanks for the link, KSzucs! There's not a whole lot of other stuff out there though, is there. Interesting...

Avatar of: Ronald W

Ronald W

Posts: 10

April 12, 2013

From the looks of it, they just forgot to add that picture in.

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