Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Posted by rpg on 24 September, 2009

My spies over at BioMed Central brought my attention to an Opinion piece in J. Biol by Arthur Lander at UCI, published on Monday. So newsworthy, they press-released it just in time for Stem Cell Awareness Day, which was yesterday. Oh well—we at f1000 have never claimed to bring you the latest research; rather just the best, no matter where it’s hidden.

It’s a very interesting article. Lander argues that just as phlogiston was a useful concept, but one that ultimately proved to be wrong and had to be discarded, so the molecular basis of ‘stemcellness’ might be a red herring. We have a difficult job describing just what defines stem cells, and have had little luck actually pinning down a molecular mechanism (not surprisingly. Defining a problem is pretty crucial to being able to answer it).

‘Stemness’, rather than stemming (ha ha) from a group of defined molecules figuring something out between themselves (like, for example, nuclear trafficking depending on interactions of certain proteins with FG repeats), looks like it’s an emergent property of cell types under feedback control. That’s not to say molecules aren’t involved of course, just that we need to think in terms of systems and networks rather than simple regulatory circuits.

This isn’t simply an interesting philosophical question. There’s been a lot of interest in stem cells as potentially being the little bastards behind certain cancers. The thought goes that if we can find out, at a molecular level, what makes those stem cells make tumours, we could come up with a chemotherapeutic agent, and bang! we’ve cured cancer. But if stemness is non-molecular, then we could be wasting time, money and lives chasing that one.

And the problem arises when we have a 2009 Stem Cell Awareness Day, and then in a couple of years’ time we say, actually, stem cells aren’t all that hot; and then people say ‘you scientists, you’re just making it up, aintcha?’

Because as scientists we’re not that good at explaining that this is how science works. How do we explain to the media (that’s the key, really), that just because last year’s hot model has been disproved we’ve actually advanced our understanding? It’s a mark of progress when  ‘scientists say’ something that contradicts what we thought was true. Ideas are born, they’re tested, and—more often than not— they are discarded as we learn more.

Just like phlogiston.

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