Embryonic Stem Cell Contamination Responsible for STAP Research Snafu

STAP or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells were allegedly derived from mature, adult cells by simply subjecting those cells to environmental stresses. These environmental stresses, such as low pH treatments and so on, were thought to cause cells to express genes that pushed them into an embryonic stem cell-like state. Researchers from the RIKEN institute reported these reports in the prestigious international journal Nature, and these advances were hailed as a stupendous advancement in stem cell biology.

However, as soon as stem cell scientists tried to repeat the results from these papers and failed, trouble started. Major laboratories had no success in recapitulating the results in the RIKEN institute papers, and, on-line post-publication reviews noticed some nagging problems in the published papers. RIKEN institute launched an investigation into the matter, and concluded that the lead researcher in these papers was guilty of scientific misconduct.

Now, new work as suggested that the whole thing was the result of contamination of the RIKEN group cells with embryonic stem cells. How that contamination occurred, however, remains unknown.

The RIKEN institute investigation was instigated by the institute and was carried out by a committee composed of seven outsiders. The committee analyzed DNA samples and laboratory records from two research teams who had participated in the STAP cell research. Those Nature papers have been retracted, but were once thought to provide a shortcut to producing pluripotent stem cells. The latest investigation suggests that the STAP findings resulted from contamination by embryonic stem cells. The investigation found signs of three separate embryonic stem cell lines, and they noted that it is difficult to imagine how contamination by three distinct lines could be accidental, but that they could also not be certain that it was intentional.

“We cannot, therefore, conclude that there was research misconduct in this instance,” the committee wrote. It did, however, find evidence that lead investigator Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the STAP papers, who formerly worked at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, had fabricated data for two figures in the original STAP publications.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).