The Royal Society and the philosophy of openness: Are we moving backwards?

Author: David Kent, 11/10/10

One of the most memorable moments of my PhD training was at a 2006 Keystone conference where Shinya Yamanaka presented a little something called Pluripotency and Nuclear Reprogramming. He carefully presented the transcription factor screen that would culminate in the first re-programming of a skin cell into a pluripotent stem cell (iPS cells). It was in the mouse, but as the publication trail shows, human iPS cells were not far behind. Having full knowledge of how important this discovery was and how simple the technique was to replicate, Yamanaka had elected to present the transcription factors used in the screen as letters “A” through “X” instead of the actual gene names. While the room certainly stirred as people realized the therapeutic possibilities of such a technology, a more impressionable moment for me was a rather saucy comment that popped up in the question period:

“This is great Shinya. You know… our lab has also worked with factor M and have obtained very similar results – what are the other factors?”

After a good-natured chuckle, the audience quickly realized that the factors were not to be named that day and we all went back into the dark waiting for the research paper to be published.

Let it be put on the table that I have an enormous amount of respect for Shinya Yamanaka and his team of scientists – they uncovered something amazing with iPS cells that will certainly drive much future scientific research. But this single event of holding back data stopped the emergence of the iPS field dead in its tracks for months. I realize why it was done, and I recognize that there was a pretty reasonable chance that the discovery would be poached by someone else – so fair enough, right? I filed these feelings away, until…

Late last month I attended a Royal Society Meeting entitled What’s Next for Stem Cell Biology where Kazutoshi Takahashi (the lead author on the original Yamanaka study) gave an excellent talk on the newest developments in his research which highlight a gene that potentially distinguishes “good” iPS cells from “bad” iPS cells (i.e.: prospectively identifying those lines that are likely to cause tumor development). Which gene was up there on the big screen?  Gene X.

Of all the places to present a “gene X” – the Royal Society venue seems particularly egregious. A society with a 350 year history of openly discussing topics of scientific interest with one of its five priorities being to “increase access to the best science internationally” seems a likely advocate against such blatant acts of non-disclosure? However, it seems the organizers and scientist participants were perfectly okay with this brand of discussion – not even a cheeky question this time.

Again, I understand the reasoning behind keeping your cards close to your chest – but surely something is wrong with the system if we have to wait for months and months of reviews and publication before getting such information into the hands of other scientists. Have we entered (and embraced) an era of scientific research where one’s career path is tantamount to moving science forward? If so, I think we desperately need to question our motives for being in medical research in the first place.

Colleagues with whom I have shared these views shrug their shoulders and tell me it’s better to have a funded lab and hold back research than to have no lab at all (which apparently is the fate of those unfortunately “scooped”). I’m not convinced though. To me, when you are confident in the results that you observe, it behooves you to share them with the research community despite any amount of you-might-not-get-a-lab rhetoric. Hopefully we’ve not traveled too far down this path to avoid turning back.

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (http://www.stemcells.cam.ac.uk/researchers/principal-investigators/dr-david-kent). His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.
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