The STAP paper sage continues – the Knoepfler post

Stem cell scientist and blogger Paul Knoepfler (from my alma mater, UC Davis), has written a nice summary of the STAP situation as it sits.  See his very useful post here.  He points out the ironic truth that Obokata and her co-authors agreed to retract the Nature STAP cell letter, but not the Nature article even though the Nature letter is not the one found by the RIKEN Center to contain figures that were manipulated.   Dr. Knoepfler wrote an editorial to the journal Nature in which he called for the journal to retract BOTH papers.  This is pretty much the view of the scientific community in general, at least from where I sit.  

Once the STAP papers came out, a host of labs tried to recapitulate the experiments described in the papers.  These are some very successful stem cell labs with very talented people.  They pretty universally had trouble recapitulating the results of Obokata and others.  Now that’s not definitive proof that something’s wrong.  Some experiments are really hard to do and it takes time to learn how to do them even if you are really good.  However, even after the detailed STAP protocol was made available, people still had trouble getting it to work.  Now things started to look hinkey.  Further mining of the papers began to show some really deep problems – things that did not make sense.  When clarification was asked for, the problems began to look even bigger.  This is the point at which the RIKEN Center became involved.

I think we should give the RIKEN Center some credit.  After all, looking into a signature publication from your own institute and the workings of one of your own is not easy.  But investigate they did, and the results were not pretty.  They did not sugar-coat their findings, but reported them forthrightly.  According to Dr. Knoepfler, RIKEN is currently determining a punishment for what it called “Dr. Obokata’s misconduct.”  If misconduct produced the Nature article then it should be retracted.  If there is some good science in that paper, then let the authors re-do it and resubmit it.  But as it stands, I think Dr. Knoepfler is completely correct when he writes, “the whole STAP story is fundamentally flawed.”

Nature should request and then demand a retraction from the authors.  If they do not get this approval, it seems to me that they are well within their rights to either retract the papers on their own pending further review or take legal action to get the papers retracted.  Most of the stem cell community, bloggers included, just want to put this whole affair behind us.