Top Science Scandals of 2014

The stem cell that never was; post-publication peer review website faces legal trouble; biosecurity breaches at federal labs

Dec 25, 2014
Jef Akst

As always, in addition to the scientific breakthroughs that make headlines throughout the year, there is also a dark side to science. From misconduct to human error, there is always the possibility for something to go wrong. This year saw the announcement and retraction of a new method of cellular reprogramming; a lawsuit against users of an anonymous post-publication peer review website; and multiple biosecurity breakdowns at federal facilities.

The STAP saga

HARUKO OBOKATAThis January, Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, along with her colleagues published two papers in Nature that described pluripotent stem cells that had been derived simply by applying a physical stressor to adult cells. Known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, the findings attracted the attention of the scientific community and media. But it didn’t take long for some researchers to raise questions.

Scientist bloggers led the way, posting the results of their attempts to replicate the study in real time. Users of the post-publication peer review website PubPeer  also raised concerns. By February, RIKEN had launched its own investigation, which led to a finding of scientific misconduct against Obokata. In July, Nature retracted both papers. Sadly, in August, Obokata’s supervisor Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide, after having been hospitalized for stress and exhaustion.

PubPeer’s legal woes

FLICKR, BRIAN TURNERThe post-publication peer review forum found itself it hot water this October, when Wayne State University pathologist Fazlul Sarkar brought a lawsuit against the site’s users for allegedly making defamatory comments questioning some of Sarkar’s publications. According to Sarkar, the comments cost him a job at the University of Mississippi. He and his lawyer subpoenaed identifying information about the users, but PubPeer has refused to turn it over. This month (December 10), the site filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

 

Containment issues at federal agencies

CDCUS government labs also ran into some trouble this year. In June, as many as 75 scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exposed to live Bacillus anthracis when anthrax-causing microbes were shipped to laboratories not equipped to handle the pathogen safely. Then in July, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employees packing up an old storage unit run stumbled upon 16 forgotten vials of smallpox. Later that same month, researchers at the CDC’s influenza lab reported that a shipment of benign avian influenza virus sent to a Department of Agriculture facility was contaminated with the highly pathogenic H5N1.

In the wake of these safety breaches, the CDC called for a moratorium on movement of biological materials from biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) and BSL-4 facilities in July, the head of the CDC Bioterror Rapid Response and Advanced Technology Laboratory resigned, and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was overhauled. “These are wake-up calls. These are events that tell us we have a problem,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said during a July press briefing. “We’re going to fix them.”