Thursday, 3 April 2014

Dr. Obokata and the STAP Spat

In January 2014, Haruko Obokata shocked the world with her announcement at the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe in two articles published in the scientific journal Nature. The science was simple; almost too simple for mechanistic biomedical researchers who make their fortunes hiding behind opaque polysyllabic Latinised research papers in ivory towers.

Obokata said that shocking blood cells with acid could trigger their transformation into stem cells – and came up with a lovely polysyllabic name for the process: STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency).

Finally an intelligent development in 21st century medicine had arrived! Previous stem cell technology was reliant on dead embryos, or expensive lengthy techniques. To regenerate cell lines and replace “worn out” body parts is of course highly significant. More significant than drugs, antibiotics, surgery and GM, all put together. The old methods would look woefully Medieval by comparison. All you needed was an incy bit of vinegar.

By enhancing the endogenous, self healing mechanisms of the body (the Vis Medicatrix Naturae of the Naturopaths; the Healing Force of Nature), medicine could repair body tissues without need for transplantation or immunological rejection. Functional errors can be corrected at the cellular level, not systems level. Rather than using diet and exercise, STAP uses body cells more directly as a biotechnological intervention. No toxins, no viruses inserted, no pharmaceuticals, no surgery or chopping bits out. The age of individualized medicine had truly come.

Unfortunately science is not the wise and truthful accumulation of knowledge for the benefit of humankind. It is adversarial. Technology is the handmaiden of capitalism and in a profit seeking economy, where the institutions are funded by corporate interests, technology is never for the benefit of humankind, but for money acquisition. The solutions are out there; to world hunger, environmental degradation, the energy crisis, and health & wellbeing.  But we will never see the true benefits of technology until capitalism, which thrives on inequality, commodification and misery, is swept away.

In science, outcomes depend on the way you look at evidence. Science is paradigmatic. This is not fully understood by people who are taught that science offers one objective rational "truth". The same data can be construed in several ways, depending on the paradigm in which it is approached (Thomas Kuhn, 1969: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Actually, true science sponsors free- thinking, which may involve several ways of looking at problems:

The fundamental laws and concepts of science are free inventions of the human mind, not solely derivable by abstraction (i.e. by simple experiments). Albert Einstein.

The interests of drug companies to trash STAP research is considerable. And they are experts in stretching the "truth" using laboratory data and Machiavellian statistics to get their products on the market (most of which are withdrawn after a few years on account of the side effects they cause).

So, on 1st April (hmmm April Fool?) news breaks that Obokata is found guilty of misconduct; her research is attacked (mostly for methodological reasons, but amidst accusations of falsification). Apparently researchers elsewhere failed to replicate her work. One sentence from The Guardian article stands out to me:

The ruling has not settled the debate over whether her breakthrough was real, though.

Obokata herself at the time of the announcement of STAP said she repeated her experiments numerous times, such was the incredulity she had towards the simplicity and efficacy of the technique. She almost couldn’t believe it herself, and delayed reporting her findings because she feared the prospect of being humiliated. Do you think a young researcher would throw away her career on a fatuous hoax which she knew would be rigorously followed up? Do you think a recent (2011) PhD graduate who studied at Harvard Medical School wouldn’t know how to perform a simple experiment without employing meticulous methodology?

Is it just possible that, by enlisting the help of the corporate media, a Big Pharma hatchet job has occurred? Lets face it- if you had discovered a cure for all diseases, don’t you think some pharmaceutical companies (which prosper from mass dependency and medicalisation), indeed, the whole monolith of medical hierarchy would take exception to your work? Enough to denigrate a young researcher’s career? 

Likewise, if a group of eclectic medical people said that to be healthy you didn’t need a host of expensive drugs and treatments; that the body heals itself; that good water, natural foods, herbs, sanitation, security, good housing, activity, sunlight and clean air were all that is necessary to “cure” the diseases of the industrial world; cancer, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness; don’t you think the pharmaceutical companies and the high priests in white coats might take exception to that? Enough to denigrate naturopathic vocations too?

By South Utsire

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