Attempts to Recapitulate STAP Cells Fail


Japanese stem cell scientist Haruko Obokata was the first author of two papers that appeared in the journal Nature earlier this year that described the derivation of pluripotent stem cells from mature cells without the use of genetic manipulation. Instead, these cells were subjected to environmental stresses such as physical pressure or exposure to acid that, according to these papers, caused the cells to express genes associated with pluripotency. Culturing of these cells led to the derivation of pluripotent stem cells lines. Thus were born STAP or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells. Needless to say, these results were hailed as a remarkable advance in stem cell biology.

Unfortunately, as soon as the papers were published, several high-level laboratories tried to recapitulate these results and universally failed. Even more troubling were some of the inconsistencies that came to the forefront in the published papers that the reviews had apparently missed or were ignored by the journal. The RIKEN center where this work was done even launched an internal investigation that concluded that Dr. Obokata was guilty of scientific misconduct.  Obokata gave approval to formally retract her Nature papers.  However, the RIKEN Center gave Obokata and her colleagues until the end of November to prove that she could reproduce STAP cell derivation.

Now the jury is in – Obokata has been unable to replicate her results. In the original experiments, Obokata used a gene fusion that caused the cells to glow green if they expressed genes related to pluripotency. In her replication of her original experiments, Obokata produced such green glowing cells when she subjected to environmental stresses. However, this is only a preliminary test that only involved a few such cells. More rigorous tests that were conducted, however, failed. In this case, Obokata’s stressed adult cells were introduced into a mouse embryo to see whether they could contribute to the development of various tissues during animal development. Obokata’s stressed cells, however, were unable to integrate into the developing embryos. Since this is the ultimate test for pluripotency, and since these cells were not able to pass this test, it seems virtually certain that Obokata’s original results were completely bogus.

With her signature conclusions in tatters, Obokata has resigned from the RIKEN center. In a very emotional resignation letter, Obokata wrote she could not “find words enough to apologize… for troubling so many people at RIKEN and other places.”  The RIKEN president, Ryoji Noyori, wrote in an accompanying statement that Dr. Obokata had been subjected to horrible psychological stress as a result of this affair.  Noyori added that he accepted her resignation to hopefully save her from suffering further from a severe “mental burden.”  One the co-authors of the STAP papers, Japanese stem cell scientist Yoshiki Sasai, committed suicide a few weeks after the retraction of the paper.

Hopefully, RIKEN and the other scientists who were involved in this venture move on and continue with the business of pushing back the frontiers of science.  It is entirely possible that intentional fraud was involved, but ultimately, we will never know.  For now, it is clear that sloppiness and a lack of skepticism about one’s own results contributed to this fiasco.  I think most people simply want to put this whole sordid event behind them.  However, there are pointed lessons to be learned and we will be better investigators if we learn them.

For one, peer review is not omnipotent.  Post-publication review is important and will continue to be important.  Secondly, journals need to be willing to solicit outside opinions to ensure the quality of high-level publications.  Third, the majority of scientists publish in journals that most people will never read.  Their work is not glamorous, but instead document tedious, high-quality, detailed, scientific research.  The majority of such work will never appear in Nature or Science or Cell, but that’s alright because good solid research is still good solid research regardless of where it appears.  It is really too bad that the push for high-visibility publications can cause people to publish too quickly before results have been properly vetted.  The STAP episode might be a reminder for journals to take greater care with the review of original research.

STAP Author Agrees to Retract Both Nature Papers


STAP cells or Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency cells were allegedly derived from adult mouse cells by subjecting those adult cells to a variety of environmental stresses. Even though the derivation of STAP cells was not terribly efficient, the ability to make pluripotent stem cells without viruses or the introduction of new genes seemed to be a godsend for stem cell scientists. Unfortunately, further testing and inquiries into STAP cells has revealed multiple problems and several labs have been completely unable to recapitulate the results of the researchers who reported the derivation of STAP cells. These problems have led many scientists to question the factuality of STAP cell derivation.

STAP cells took another hit this week when genetic tests of STAP cells indicated that those cells do not match the mice from which they were allegedly derived, according to a report from Nature News Blog.

The derivation of STAP cells were initially reported by Haruko Obokata from the RIKEN center and her colleagues. Given the remarkable nature of the claims in those papers, many scientists were skeptical and moved to test the protocols utilized by Obokata and others in those paper to make STAP cells from adult mouse cells. Unfortunately, these independent tests universally flopped, and an internal investigation by the Riken Center came to the conclusion that Dr. Obokata was guilty of research misconduct, which she has denied.

Teruhiko Wakayama, a scientist from Yamanashi University and one of the co-authors on the STAP papers, subjected some of the cell lines that he derived using the STAP approach back in March to a battery of genetic tests. He was dismayed to discover that some of these cell lines did not match the adult mice from which they were supposed to have been generated. This raises the possibility that the STAP cells are the result of contamination, which is a perennial problem in cell culture laboratories. Wakayama did not observe any anomalies with the lines reported in the Nature papers, but, just to be safe, he sent those and other lines to an independent, and unnamed, lab for further examination and corroboration.

These independent tests, according to reports from Japanese media sources, have found that none of the STAP cell lines match the mouse strains they were supposed to be from. This calls “into question whether the STAP phenomenon has ever been demonstrated.”

Last week, the Nature News Blog reported that Dr. Obokata had agreed to retract one of the two STAP papers, even though the retraction has yet to appear in print. Now, according to the ScienceInsider, Obokata has consented to retracting both Nature papers. The ScienceInsider added this will not end the STAP story, since Riken is doggedly trying to determine whether the STAP phenomenon exists and as some critics are asking how these flawed papers were published in the first place.

“The science of the two papers was rigorously, robustly peer-reviewed as part of our usual editorial procedures. Any inaccuracies in the presentation of data that may have come to light since the peer review are being investigated,” a spokesperson from Nature told ScienceInsider.

Authors Agree to Retract One STAP Paper


Embattled stem cell scientist Haruko Obokata from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan has agreed, albeit reluctantly, to retract one of the two Nature papers that describes a controversial technique for generating pluripotent stem cells by stressing adult cells with acid or pressure.

Obokata and her colleagues pioneered the STAP protocol that generates Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency or STAP cells in two papers that were published in the international journal Nature in January, 2014. When these papers appeared, they were regarded as a revolutionary finding in the field of stem cells. Nevertheless, these papers also generated more than a fair share of suspicions, and rightly so. After all, these papers challenged many previous observations. Therefore, many laboratories tried to repeat Obokata’s results, without any success. While in and of itself this was not a definitive refutation of these papers, further mining of the data in these papers revealed discrepancies and inconsistencies. Again, while this is not a definitive refutation of the results in the paper, it was enough to implement further investigation. Therefore an internal investigation by the Riken Center was conducted.

In their investigation, Riken found evidence of misconduct.  According to the Riken report, two pictures of electrophroresis gels were spliced together, and that data from Obokata’s doctoral thesis was reused in two images despite that fact that these data came from experiments that had been conducted under different conditions.

Obokata apologized for her errors, but insisted that these mistakes were unintentional and that they did not detract from the validity of her work in general. She also said she would be appealing the findings. That appeal, however, was rejected earlier this month.

Now, Obokata has agreed to retract one, but not both, of two Nature papers. According to the Nature News Blog, which is editorially independent of the research editorial team, the “Bidirectional developmental potential in reprogrammed cells with acquired pluripotency” paper is to be retracted. Riken told the Nature News Blog that each co-author either agreed to the retraction or did not oppose it.  According to the Japan Times:

Of the three researchers, her lawyer said University of Yamanashi professor Teruhiko Wakayama is responsible for the paper Obokata has agreed to retract. He was engaged in all experiments, and Obokata wrote the paper under his guidance, lawyer Hideo Miki said.

She e-mailed the other main co-author, Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, that she would have no problem if Wakayama wants to retract it, Miki said.

Both papers were published in the Jan. 30 edition of the journal, one as a “letter” and the other as an “article.”

However, the journal Nature couldn’t confirm the request. “Nature does not comment on corrections or retractions that may or may not be under consideration, nor does it comment on correspondence with authors, which is confidential,” a spokesperson tells the Nature News Blog. “We are currently conducting our own evaluation and we hope that we are close to reaching a conclusion and taking action.”

According to the Japan Times, Obokata has said that she will not retract the other paper.

Lead Author On STAP Papers Publicly Apologizes in Press Conference


On April 9th, the Japanese scientist at the center of a controversy over studies purporting to turn mature cells to stem cells simply by bathing them in acid or subjecting them to mechanical stress, Haruko Obokata, publicly apologized for her errors associated with the published work.

In a press conference in Osaka, Japan, with a crowd of voracious reporters flashing their cameras, Obokata blamed her scientific immaturity and lack of awareness of research protocols for the errors that were found in her two high-profile papers on the studies that were published in the journal Nature in January, which included the use of a duplicated image. With Obokata were two lawyers who are representing her.

To her credit, Obokata took full responsibility for the errors in the papers and apologized to her co-authors for the messy situation in which they presently find themselves. She also apologized to the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, where she did her work, for the embarrassing press this ordeal had brought upon it. Additionally, she sought forgiveness from the RIKEN committee whose report earlier this month found her guilty of scientific misconduct. At the time, Obokata had attacked the report.

This is Obokata’s first public statement in more than two months, and she held the press conference to apologize for the errors and to make the case that her research, despite the caveats and mistakes, was still valid. Also, Obokata wanted to establish that the inaccuracies in the papers were not deliberate. The day before the press conference, Obokata submitted a formal appeal to RIKEN for their committee to retract its misconduct findings. She insisted that the “stimulus-triggered activation pluripotency” or STAP phenomenon, as it has been dubbed, exists. RIKEN has 50 days to respond to her appeal.

In the STAP work, lead author Obokata, along with Japanese and US colleagues, described remarkable experiments in which she reprogrammed mature mouse cells to an embryonic state merely by stressing them. Unfortunately, she her two papers soon fell under suspicion and last month a RIKEN-appointed investigative committee found in a preliminary report that they contained numerous errors. A further report on 1 April by the RIKEN committee concluded that two of the errors in this paper constituted a case of scientific misconduct. Obokata aggressively responded on the same day in a written statement in which she expressed “shock and anger” at these conclusions. She also thought that the committee had unfairly come to their conclusions without giving her a chance to explain herself. On this day, however, Obokata’s seemed to sing a very different tune in which she pleaded for forgiveness and presented several apologies. However, she steadfastly maintains that her primary findings are true.

Obokata continues to insist that the two problems that the committee declared cases of scientific misconduct (the duplicated image and the swapping of a diagram of an electrophoresis gel) were honest mistakes, and that she had not been given enough time to explain her side to the committee.

After her brief introductory remarks, Obokata’s lawyer gave a 20-minute presentation to make the case that neither problem constituted misconduct. Defining fraud as fabrication, he countered that in both cases Obokata had the original data that should have been used but merely added the wrong data by mistake. For the more damning finding — an image of teratomas that had appeared in her doctoral dissertation and then again in the recent papers — the committee had found that she had changed a caption, which made it look intentional. The lawyer however traced the image back to a slide, part of a presentation that Obokata had continually updated and reused, until its origin became obscured. In one of her many apologies, Obokata said, “If I had gone back to carefully check the original data, there wouldn’t have been this problem.”

After the lawyer’s presentation, Obokata responded to journalists’ questions for more than 2 hours. Why had she only handed two laboratory notebooks over to the committee looking into her research? She said that she said she had four or five more that the committee hadn’t requested. Obokata denied that she ever agreed to retract the papers. Had she asked to retract her PhD dissertation? No, she merely sought advice on how to proceed Obokata’s dissertation is under investigation at Waseda University, where she studied for her doctorate).

Obokata also denied the possibility that the STAP cells had resulted from contamination from embryonic stem cells, saying that she had not allowed embryonic cells in the same laboratory and that she had carried out tests which precluded that possibility.

She said that she had created STAP cells more than 200 times, adding that she knows someone who has independently achieved it but refused to give the name (citing privacy). She believes that a RIKEN group trying to demonstrate STAP cells will help her. She has not, she said, been asked to participate in those efforts. She added that she would consider doing a public replication experiment but that it was not up to her whether she could.

Two hours into the questioning, her lawyer cut off journalists, citing concern for Obokata’s frail emotional state, and said she had to return to the hospital where she has been staying. She bowed, apologized, then bowed again and left with the reporter’s cameras flashing away as she retreated.

I feel genuinely sorry for this young lady.  Her career in science is essentially over.  It is within the realm of possibility that her mistakes were unintentional and were the result of a hurry to publish.  In this case, her adviser does bear some of the blame for her mistakes.  However, at this point it seems more likely that her mistakes were probably intentional.  If that is the case she should have known that such a high-prolife paper describing such a novel finding would be subjected to intense scrutiny and repeated attempts to verify it.  I am reminder of Moses’ admonition to the tribes that had settled on the East side of the Jordan River if they do not help the other tribes fight for their lands.  In Numbers 32:22-24, Moses said, “then when the land is subdued before the Lord, you may return and be free from your obligation to the Lord and to Israel. And this land will be your possession before the Lord.  But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. 24 Build cities for your women and children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”

Indeed your sin will find you out, and if Ms. Obakata intentionally attempted to deceive her colleagues, then it would appear that her sin has found her out.  At the moment I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but if further evidence emerges that the whole thing is bogus, then I will retract my half-hearted support.  It is entirely possible that she found something novel and interesting that happens to cells when they are stresses.  However, it seems equally clear that a conversion into an embryonic stem cell-like state is probably not one of these things.  I reiterate my original belief – the original STAP paper should be retracted.

STAP Paper Author Urges that the STAP Paper Be Withdrawn


Japanese scientist, Teruhiko Wakayama, a professor at Japan’s University of Yamanashi, who was part of the research team that described the production and characterization of STAP cells, has called for his own headline-grabbing study on stem cells to be withdrawn from publication. Wakayama says that the main findings of this paper have been thrown into doubt.

When the STAP cells came out in January it was hailed as a game-changer that could herald a new era of medical biology. The paper was published in the prestigious journal Nature and was also widely covered in Japan and across the world.

Since that time, however, there have been reports that several other scientists have been unable to replicate the Japanese team’s results. Also there seem to be some disparities with some of the paper’s data and images.

“It is no longer clear what is right,” Wakayama told public broadcaster NHK.

STAP or stress-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells seemed to represent a simple way to reprogram mature animal cells back into an embryonic-like state that would allow them to generate many types of tissue.

From these STAP cell papers, various editorials dreamed big and suggested that just about any cell in your body could be simply and cheaply reprogrammed back into embryonic cell-like cells, and be used to replace damaged cells or grow new organs for sick and injured people.

Wakayama even said, “When conducting the experiment, I believed it was absolutely right.” However, now he is not so sure. He continued: “But now that many mistakes have emerged, I think it is best to withdraw the research paper once and, using correct data and correct pictures, to prove once again the paper is right. If it turns out to be wrong, we would need to make it clear why a thing like this happened.”

A spokesperson from the journal Nature has said that they were aware of, “issues relating to this paper,” and that an investigation was underway. However, at this point, the journal had no further comment to make.

Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell expert at Britain’s National Institute for Medical Research, cautioned against premature assumptions on whether the research was flawed. “I have an open mind on this,” he told Reuters. “I’m waiting to hear from several serious stem cell labs around the world on whether they have been able to reproduce the methods.”

Wakayama’s co-researcher Haruko Obokata, the first author on the STAP paper, became an instant celebrity in Japan after she spoke during a Nature media briefing to science reporters all over the world about her findings.

The Japanese team was joined by other researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the United States in this research. They took skin and blood cells from mice, grew them, and then subjected them to stresses that brought the cells “almost to the point of death.” They exposed the cells to a variety of stresses, including trauma, low oxygen levels, and acidic environments.

One of these “stressful” situations used by these researchers was to bathe their cells in a weak acid solution for around 30 minutes. Within days, the scientists said they had found that the cells had not only survived but had also recovered by naturally reverting into a state similar to that of an embryonic stem cell.

Unfortunately, other research teams have yet been able to replicate the findings, and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, where Obokata works, said last week it had “launched an independent inquiry into the content of the paper.

That inquiry will be conducted by a panel of experts from within and outside RIKEN, it said, and would be published as soon as it was concluded.

A spokesperson from the RIKEN Institute declined to comment on Wakayama’s call for the paper to be withdrawn.

Results of STAP Cell Paper Questioned


Reports of Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency or STAP cells has rocked the stem cell world. If adult cells can be converted into pluripotent stem cells so easily, then perhaps personalized, custom stem cells for each patient are just around the corner.

However, the RIKEN institute, which was heavily involved in the research that brought STAP cells to the world has now opened an investigation into this research, since leading scientists have voiced discrepancies about some of the figures in the paper and others have failed to reproduce the results in the paper.

Last week, Friday (February 14, 2014, spokespersons for the RIKEN centre, which is in Kobe, Japan, announced that the institute is looking into alleged irregularities in the work of biologist Haruko Obokata, who works at the institution. Obokata was the lead author listed on two papers that were published in the international journal Nature. These papers (Obokata, H. et al. Nature 505, 641–647 (2014), and Obokata, H. et al. Nature 505, 676–680 (2014) described a rather simple protocol for deriving pluripotent stem cells from adult mouse cells by exposing them to acidic conditions, other types of stresses such as physical pressure on cell membranes. The cells, according to these two publications, had virtually all the characteristics of mouse embryonic stem cells, but had the added ability to form placental structures, which is an ability that embryonic stem cells do not have. The investigation initiated by the RIKEN centre comes at the behest of scientists who have noticed that some of the images used in these papers might have been duplicated from other papers. Also, several scientists have notes that they have been unable, to date, to replicate her results.

These concerns came to a head last week when the science blog PubPeer, and others, noted some problems in these two Nature papers and in an earlier paper from 2011. Obokata is also the first author of this 2011 paper (Obokata, H. et al. Tissue Eng. Part A 17, 607–15 (2011), and this paper contains a figure that seems to have been used for one of the figures in the 2014 paper. Also, there is another figure duplication.

Harvard Medical School anesthesiologist Charles Vacanti who was the corresponding author of one of the Nature papers has said that has learned last week about a data mix up in the paper and has contacted the journal to request a correction. “It certainly appears to have been an honest mistake [that] did not affect any of the data, the conclusions or any other component of the paper,” says Vacanti. Note that Vacanti is a co-author on both papers and a corresponding author on one of them.

In the other paper, Obokata serves as the corresponding author and this paper contains an image of two placentas that appear to be very similar. Teruhiko Wakayama works at Yamanashi University in Yamanashi prefecture, and he is a co-author on both of these papers. According to Wakayama, he sent more than a hundred images to Obokata and suggests that there was confusion over which to use. He says he is now looking into the problem.

Additionally, ten prominent stem-cell scientists have been unable to repeat Obokata’s results. One particular blog listed eight failures from scientists in the field. However, most of those attempts did not use the same types of cells that Obokata used.

Some scientists think that this could simply be a case of experienced scientists working with a system that they know very well and can manipulate easily, unlike outsiders to this same laboratory. For example, Qi Zhou, a cloning expert at the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, who says most of his mouse cells died after treatment with acid, says that “setting up the system is tricky; as an easy experiment in an experienced lab can be extremely difficult to others, I won’t comment on the authenticity of the work only based on the reproducibility of the technique in my lab,” says Zhou.

However, others are more deeply concerned. For example, Jacob Hanna, a stem-cell biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, however, says “we should all be cautious not to persecute novel findings” but that he is “extremely concerned and sceptical”. He plans to try for about two months before giving up.

It could be that the protocol is far more complicated that thought. For example, even Wakayama has been having trouble reproducing the results. To be sure, Wakayama and a student of his were able to replicate the experiment independently before publication, but only after being coached by Obokata. But since he moved to Yamanashi, he has had no luck. “It looks like an easy technique — just add acid — but it’s not that easy,” he says.

Wakayama says that his own success in replicating Obokata’s results has convinced him that her technique works. “I did it and found it myself,” he says. “I know the results are absolutely true.”

Clearly one way to clear this up is for the authors of this groundbreaking paper to publish a detailed protocol on how to make STAP cells. This should clear up any problems with the papers. Vacanti says he has had no problem repeating the experiment and says he will let Obokata supply the protocol “to avoid any potential for variation that could lead to confusion”.

The journal Nature has said that there are aware of the problems with the papers and looking into the matter.

For now, that’s where the issue sits. Frustrating I know, but until we know more we will have to just “wait and see.”