Harvard stem cell researcher retracts two papers

Harvard Medical School stem researcher Amy Wagers, who works at the Joslin Diabetes Center has issued a retraction notice for a 2010 paper, and has also issued a “statement of concern” in which she intends to review a second paper from 2008. One of her former postdoctoral fellows, Shane Mayack, was the first author on both of these papers, and she maintains the validity of the results reported in these papers.

On October 13, 2010, Wagers and two other authors retracted their January 2010 paper “Systemic signals regulate ageing and rejuvenation of blood stem cell niches.” This paper reported data that they interpreted to mean that stem cell aging processes might be reversible but the notice references “serious concerns” with the data that led to that hypothesis, which prompted the retraction.  Wagers has even issued a statement that upon reviewing the data from the Nature paper, she immediately notified Nature, JDC, and HMS that she and her colleagues have begun to repeat the experiments to test their validity.

A point of concern for Wager is the appearance of very similar figures in both papers; Figure S3b from the Nature paper and Figure 6c from the Blood paper chart the frequency of blood stem cells but result from very different protocols.  A day later, Wagers published a notice of concern in the journal Blood that stated that a 2008 paper that she coauthored with Mayack is also under review for possible misreporting of the data.  No further information has yet been published concerning the study, “Osteolineage niche cells initiate hematopoietic stem cell mobilization,” which features a figure that is strikingly similar to one published in the retracted Nature paper.

Although Mayack has not personally commented on the retractions, her lawyer issued a statement saying that although Mayack realizes the data presentation was improperly handled, she believes the underlying research remains conclusive. Accordingly, Mayack did not sign the retraction notice. Further examination is ongoing to determine if the conclusions presented in either paper are still viable.

At this point it is hard to say, but it seems possible that this is just a mix-up.  Hopefully, work from Wager’s lab will determine if the conclusions are justified.  Academic misconduct is a problem is science these days.  The most notorious case is that of South Korean researcher Professor Woo Suk Hwang,  However it is exceedingly hard to say if this case falls under this category.  My feeling is that the jury is still out on this one.  It is better to give the researchers the benefit of the doubt, given the information in hand.  As things develop, there will be more to say.