Stem cell papers retracted

Researchers admit mistakes in work on easy method for making STAP cells

Researchers who claimed to have discovered STAP cells — stem cells made simply by stressing cells with a squeeze or with a brief plunge in acid — are pulling their papers from the journal Nature. The scientists say that mistakes in the work now make them doubt the existence of such cells.

“These multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole and we are unable to say without doubt whether the [STAP cell] phenomenon is real,” the researchers write in the July 3 Nature.

When they were announced in January, STAP cells were greeted with both hope and skepticism that easy techniques could turn back the developmental clock and reset cells to a primordial state (SN: 2/22/14, p. 6). 

Researchers in other labs attempted to replicate the results but were unsuccessful. Scientists also pointed out that images and passages of text appeared to have been copied, sparking an investigation by RIKEN, the research institute in Japan where much of the work was done (SN Online: 3/10/14). That investigation found instances of plagiarism and data manipulation, and concluded that the study’s lead author, Haruko Obokata, was guilty of misconduct (SN Online: 4/1/14).  The institute is still attempting to replicate the work.

In the retraction notice, the authors now describe five more errors, including pictures of the same cells or embryos labeled as different cells or embryos.

Nature has marked the papers as retracted but the journal continues to host them on its web site. “In our opinion, to take down retracted papers from journal websites amounts to an attempt to rewrite history, and makes life needlessly difficult for those wishing to learn from such episodes,” states an editorial in Nature.

Tina Hesman Saey

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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