Harvard, hope and hype: the sad reason behind overselling diabetes stem cell work – raising money

Earlier in the week I got all fired up – not in a good way – about a press release and news stories relating to a new paper from Doug Melton on a insulin producing STEM cell study

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js With a little more discussion I just got more angry

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//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I was angry both about the overselling of the implications of the paper and the fact that the paper was not published in an open manner. This was despite the stated goals of HHMI which funds some of the Melton Lab work.

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I was especially upset that much of the press coverage was reporting on an imminent cure for type I diabetes when this was clearly not imminent. Although I note – some coverage was OK. Like these:

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//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Another good piece of news – HHMI got Doug Melton to post a copy of the paper on a web site

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Although this was kind of hidden

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//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Another good thing – Paul Knoepfler, a colleague of mine at UC Davis wrote a blog post for his excellent STEM cell blog about the Harvard study and the hype.

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//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js But the hype was still spreading …

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js So I felt like there was a continued need to say something about this

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I even changed a talk I was giving on Sunday to include a discussion of this paper and the hype as, well, a bad thing
  

And I thought, and kind of hoped, that this might just go away. And then, many people forwarded me this email from Harvard sent out as part of a fundraising campaign. Most of the people who sent it to me sent it in happiness with the possibility of a cure for type 1 diabetes. Here is the email:

Of for $&*#*# sake.  Really.  So now Harvard was going to use this as a fundraising tool.  And they would oversell it even more:

“A giant breakthrough in making that possible” with “that” referring to “finding a cure”.  And then they say “these cells can replace or augment daily insulin injections” without saying that this WAS NOT IN HUMANS.  THIS WAS IN MOUSE.  $*#($#) DECEPTIVE LYING SCHMUCKS.

And they end this email with “make a gift today.”  How about this Harvard.  I will make donations to anyone but you until you stop marketing in hope and hype and start being responsible.

UPDATE 10/16/14 8 AM PST

Some of the overhyped statements relating to this story:

Harvard Press Story: “We are now just one preclinical step away from the finish line,” said Melton

Rawstory: Stem-cell cure for Type 1 diabetes ‘on par with discovery of antibiotics’

Telegraph: Cure for Type 1 diabetes iminent

Times of India: Type 1 diabetes cure within reach after breakthrough that could spell end of insulin injections for millions

BBC: Giant Leap to Type 1 Diabetes Cure

New #openaccess journals welcome; competition good; not sure how they know it is "top tier" though

Great news from HHMI, The Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck: http://www.hhmi.org/news/20110627.html

Leading Research Organizations Announce Top-Tier, Open Access Journal for Biomedical and Life Sciences


The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust announced today that they are to support a new, top-tier, open access journal for biomedical and life sciences research.

The three organizations aim to establish a new journal that will attract and define the very best research publications from across these fields. All research published in the journal will make highly significant contributions that will extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

A team of highly regarded, experienced and actively practicing scientists will ensure fair, swift and transparent editorial decisions followed by rapid online publication. The first issue of the journal, whose name has yet to be decided, is expected to be published in the summer of 2012.

The three research organizations developed their plans following a workshop in 2010 at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus attended by a number of leading scientists. The participants concluded that there was a need for a model of academic publishing that better suits the needs of the research community.

Dr. Robert Tjian, President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, says: “The message from the research community was clear: we are fortunate to have many excellent journals, but there is need for a different, more appropriate and efficient publishing model.”

Professor Herbert Jäckle, Vice President of the Max Planck Society, says: “A journal which aims to represent and publish the very best research outcomes needs an editorial team of experienced – and, crucially, actively practicing – scientists. It must also be editorially independent of those who provide the financial support.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says: “We will attract the most outstanding science for publication by establishing a journal in which researchers have confidence in robust editorial decisions taken by their scientific peers. This will be a journal for scientists edited by scientists. The ethos of the journal will be to avoid asking authors to make extensive modifications or perform endless additional experiments before a paper can be published.”

Recruitment is under way for an Editor-in-Chief who – together with the journal’s editorial team – will be an experienced, active scientist. The editorial team will be editorially independent of the funders. They will rely on their scientific expertise and active research experience to identify the best papers, make scientifically-based judgments and exercise leadership in steering these papers through peer review.

The journal will employ an open and transparent peer review process in which papers will be accepted or rejected as rapidly as possible, generally with only one round of revisions, and with limited need for modifications or additional experiments. For transparency, reviewers’ comments will be published anonymously.

As the journal will only exist online, it offers an opportunity to create a journal and article format that will exploit the potential of new technologies to allow for improved data presentation. The journal will be an open access journal, i.e. the entire content will be freely available for all to read, to reproduce and for unrestricted use. This open access system will also enhance opportunities to share content and to more directly engage the reader.

The three organizations have made a commitment to cover costs of launching the journal to ensure its success. The long-term business model will be developed by the incoming Editor-in-Chief and the team they build.

This is great news.  The more #openaccess journals we have the better.  Clearly some of the text here is a dig at existing journals, including PLoS Biology.  PLoS Biology definitely needs to work on some things – like transparency (e.g., if your article is rejected, the Academic Editor who advised the professional editors is not names).  PLoS Biology is also run by professional editors.  Thus it is not run by “active scientists” which is another one of the comments in this press release.  Personally I think it would be better if PLoS Biology was run by active scientists.  But that is not the system there.  I have a strange role at PLoS Biology – “Academic Editor in Chief” for a journal not run by academics.  In essence I am a senior advisor to the professionals who run the journal.  I personally would prefer it if academics ran the journal, probably for the same reasons that HHMI, Wellcome, and Max Planck make such a big deal out of it here.  But the professionals do run PLoS Biology.  And overall, they do a good job.  I think the journal could certainly be better – and thus this new competition should be good.  We will have to wait and see just how much competition it is.  It seems a bit weird for them to call this a “top tier” journal before it exists.  Maybe they should have said “aiming to be a top tier journal” or something like that.  But I think it probably will become one if HHMI and Wellcome and MaxPlanck scientists start publishing their good papers there.  I hope this helps catalyze some beneficial changes at PLoS Biology, but we will have to wait and see.

It is a good time for #OpenAccess when major organizations start to compete to create the best “top tier” open access journal.  In the end, this can only be good for science and scientists. 

A great moment for plant sciences: winners of HHMI-GBMF competition for Plant Science Program Investigators announced

This is truly the golden era for plant sciences. One key sign of this is the announcement of the winners of the competition to become HHMI Investigators in Plant Sciences.
HHMI, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has for many years picked HHMI Investigators in Biomedical Research. Those picked get guaranteed funds for 5 years and become technically employees of HHMI in order to get them out of miscellaneous burdensome university activities. It’s a win win situation for universities because HHMI pays for space and salaries for the Investigators. I myself tried to get me one of these “Uncle Howie” types of positions a few years ago but did not win out. My brother, Michael, did. The other people they picked the year they picked Michael and not me were all very good, so I actually did not feel so bad about not getting it.
HHMI has also invested in other areas related to biomedical research including funding Janelia Farm, and Early Career Scientist program, as well as many educational activities.
The GBMF, aka the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has itself made major contributions to science and medicine in various ways. One example is the Marine Microbiology Initiative (MMI) (which funded the iSEEM project for which I am PI) and cool work out of many top marine labs. In fact, the MMI program did something rarely seen outside of HHMI – they funded “people not projects” by creating MMI Investigators who got a good chunk of money to do pretty much whatever they wanted.
Thus it was great to hear some time ago that GBMF and HHMI were coming together to create a Plant Sciences Investigator program. I confess even though I am not a real plant biologist I considered applying for this because I have shifted much of my work recently into studies of plant associated microbiomes. But I did not apply. And I kept wondering – who would emerge from the competition as winners. Would they be people I respected/had heard of?
Well the wait is over. Last week the winners were announced: HHMI News: 2011 Plant Science Program HHMI-GBMF Investigators. And it is quite an incredible crew. The press release from HHMI-GBMF is quite useful (unlike many press releases in the sciences). Here is a list of the winners with some additional details (taken from the HHMI site – I hope they do not mind).










JUNE 16, 2011
2011 Plant Science Program 
HHMI-GBMF Investigators

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Philip Benfey, Ph.D.
Philip Benfey, Ph.D.
Duke University
Durham, NC

Benfey is studying how plants control the form and function of their root systems. Moresmall arrow
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Dominique Bergmann, Ph.D.
Dominique Bergmann, Ph.D.
Stanford University
Palo Alto, CA

By studying the formation of the structures plants use to control the exchange of water and carbon dioxide, Bergmann is making fundamental discoveries about how cells acquire their fates and establish the patterns needed to build a complete organism. Moresmall arrow
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Simon Chan, Ph.D.
Simon Chan, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis
Davis, CA

By studying basic chromosome biology, Chan has made discoveries that have practical implications for making crop plants easier to breed. Moresmall arrow
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Xuemei Chen, Ph.D.
Xuemei Chen, Ph.D.
University of California, Riverside
Riverside, CA

Chen’s lab has two overlapping goals: deciphering the molecular programs that control flower formation, and determining how small RNAs control gene activity in plants. Moresmall arrow
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Jeff Dangl, Ph.D.
Jeff Dangl, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC

Plants are confronted by a daunting range of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Dangl is working to understand how plants recognize beneficial versus pathogenic microbes. Moresmall arrow
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Xinnian Dong, Ph.D.
Xinnian Dong, Ph.D.
Duke University
Durham, NC

Dong is investigating how plant defense genes promote resistance to pathogens. Moresmall arrow
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Jorge Dubcovsky, Ph.D.
Jorge Dubcovsky, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis
Davis, CA

Dubcovsky’s investigations of wheat genetics have enabled him to boost the plant’s nutritional content, increase yield, and optimize the growing cycle for particular climates. Moresmall arrow
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Joseph Ecker, Ph.D.
Joseph Ecker, Ph.D.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
La Jolla, CA

Ecker is trying to understand how plants perceive and respond to gases required for stress protection, seed germination and fruit ripening. Moresmall arrow
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Mark Estelle, Ph.D.
Mark Estelle, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA

Estelle is investigating how hormones help plants respond to alter their growth in response to changes in including light, temperature, water, and nutrient availability. Moresmall arrow
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Sheng Yang He, Ph.D.
Sheng Yang He, Ph.D.
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI

He works to identify the techniques that bacteria use to attack plants and make them more susceptible to disease, which has implications for both crops and human health. Moresmall arrow
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Robert Martienssen, Ph.D.
Robert Martienssen, Ph.D.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor, NY

The gene silencing methods studied in Martienssen’s lab keep mobile genetic elements under control and are critical to normal plant reproduction and development. Moresmall arrow
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Elliot Meyerowitz, Ph.D.
Elliot Meyerowitz, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, CA

One of the questions that interests Meyerowitz is how plant cells recognize and respond to chemical and mechanical signals. Moresmall arrow
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Krishna Niyogi, Ph.D.
Krishna Niyogi, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA

Niyogi has spent two decades delving into photosynthesis and has made fundamental discoveries that help scientists understand the strategies plants use to adapt to their environment. Moresmall arrow
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Craig Pikaard, Ph.D.
Craig Pikaard, Ph.D.
Indiana University at Bloomington
Bloomington, IN

One of the major research interests in Pikaard’s lab is understanding how plant genes are silenced. Moresmall arrow
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Keiko Torii, Ph.D.
Keiko Torii, Ph.D.
University of Washington
Seattle, WA

Torii’s lab studies how plant cells coordinate proliferation and differentiation during organ morphogenesis to generate beautiful, orderly patterns. Moresmall arrow

It is a phenomenal crew. I know many of them personally and professionally and there is no doubt they are among the most creative and productive in life sciences, let alone in plant biology. Philip Benfey at Duke has been involved in this massive DARPA project in which I have also been involved on the “Fundamental Laws of Biology” and he in part is what inspired me to get more into plant – microbe interaction studies. I have known Jeff Dangl at UNC for many years and in addition to always being impressed with his science his recent shift to working on “microbiomes” of plant roots has inspired me to do more experiments in model genetic hosts. This is part of why my lab is now involved in studies of microbes associated with rice and corn. I have also known Joe Ecker for many years too (I worked on the Arabidopsis thaliana genome sequencing paper in which he was involved) and every time I see him I end up wanting to do another plant associated project. And I have seen him and Jeff Dangl a lot since they have both been outside advisors to a variety of DOE-JGI projects in which I am involved.  I worked with Elliot Meyerowitz on a National Academy of Science panel that came out with a report on the future of the life science “The New Biology for the 21st Century”.  Elliot was a steadfast defender of basic science and small scale science in that panel.  I interacted with Craig Pikaard many years ago regarding the finding of a novel RNA polymerase homolog (RNA pol IV) in the Arabidopsis genome.   I could go on and on but won’t. Suffice it to say, I am very impressed with the collection of people that are the winners of the competition.
I will however go on and on a bit about one other thing. Two of the winners are from UC Davis: Simon Chan and Jorge Dubcovsky. Both are phenomenal and great to have on campus. In fact, Davis is one of only two places that has two winners. Duke is the other one. UCSD sort of has two if you include Joe Ecker from Salk which is around the corner. This makes me proud to be at UC Davis which is a hotbed for good plant biology research.
Anyway, I think it is great that both HHMI and GBMF are getting more into plant sciences – especially now that federal funding programs are hurting a bit.

As a last little bit here, here are some fully open access papers by this crew:

There are many many more – yet another thing I like about this group. 

HHMI early career scientists

HHMI has announced a new list of anointed ones (HHMI News: HHMI Gives 50 Early Career Scientists a Jump on Their Next Big Idea).

A few comments.

First, it is really really surprising that they are so low on females here (41 men, 9 women by my count). Given that this is for early career scientists and that women have on average sometime more challenges in the early career than men, it would have been nice to see this the other way around.

That being said, they did pick some good people in this list (shocking, I know). Here are a few I want to highlight as they are related to things I tend to write about here:

Rob Knight
, at U. Colorado at Boulder who has been developing computational methods to study microbial diversity and has developed lots of cool methods.
Harmit Malik, FHCRC, who does some great stuff on genome evolution.
Michael Laub, MIT who works on Caulobacter development.
Martin Cohn, U. Florida who has done some very cool work on evolution of development in vertebrates.
Neil Hunter UC Davis. UCD’s first HHMI awardee. And a good one to pick. He does some cool work on recombination.
Molly Przeworski, U. Chicago, who works on population genetics on a genome-wide scale.
Aviv Regev, Broad Institute, who has done some interesting work on regulatory networks.

I love the idea of finding people not projects. Too bad there is not more of this type of thing from Federal Agencies. We would probably save money in the long run — review people once every few years and give them some money to do work. Not that competitive grant programs should be eliminated, but funding people more would reduce the # of grant proposals and panels and would probably save $$ in the long run by allowing people to focus on doing work.