Year in review: Easy stem cells a no go

STAP cell papers raise publishing issues

mouse fetus

STEM CELL TAKE BACK  A study claiming to have grown a mouse fetus with simple stem cells was retracted after scientists couldn’t replicate the work.

H. Obokata


An incredibly easy method for making stem cells turned out to be too good to be true, again tainting stem cell research with controversy and stirring up disquiet over some scientific publishing policies.

In January, scientists claimed to have made ultraflexible stem cells, known as STAP cells, by dipping mature cells into acid or by putting the cells under gentle pressure (SN: 2/22/14, p. 6). Had it worked, stem cell production could have been a breeze instead of a meticulous endeavor. But within weeks it was clear that STAP cells were not as easy to make as claimed (SN Online: 3/10/14).

An internal investigation at Japan’s RIKEN found lead author Haruko Obokata guilty of scientific misconduct for manipulating images and plagiarizing text. In July, the authors retracted the papers (SN Online: 7/2/14). And in August, coauthor Yoshiki Sasai hanged himself in Japan.

Still some of the researchers continued to assert that STAP cells are real. Obokata claimed to have produced STAP cells more than 200 times but was not able to reproduce her results. Two other coauthors, Charles Vacanti and Koji Kojima, released a revised protocol in September. They stated that STAP cells aren’t easy to make but claimed that the new instructions should improve the likelihood of creating the elusive cells.

The STAP cell saga exposed possible weaknesses in scientific publishing and peer review (SN: 7/26/14, p. 7). The journal Nature, where the STAP papers appeared, contended that peer reviewers could not have spotted the papers’ fatal flaws. In September, however, copies of reviews from Nature revealed that peer reviewers had grave concerns over the work and didn’t recommend it for publication. One reviewer called the STAP cell method a “magical” approach that wasn’t supported by experimental evidence. It is not clear how much revision the papers underwent before being published in their final form.

Some researchers say the story isn’t over and that scientists need to examine this case to ensure that stem cell research won’t be marred by such incidents again.

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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