STAP Papers Retracted

The two papers that appeared in the journal Nature that described the derivation of embryonic stem cell-like cells simply by exposing cells to environmental stresses have been formally retracted. In a notice of retraction from the Riken Center’s Haruko Obokata, who was the lead author of these papers, and her colleagues said that “[s]everal critical errors have been found in our Article and Letter.” The notice also pointed out that a subsequent investigation of those errors by an internal Riken Center investigation found evidence of research misconduct.

“The STAP technology, indeed, sounded too good to be true,” said Dusko Ilic, from King’s College London, to the Reuters news group. “I hoped that Haruko Obokata would prove at the end all those naysayers wrong. Unfortunately, she did not.”

In an editorial that appeared in Nature, Ivan Oransky from a blog site known as Retraction Watch, argue that it couldn’t have caught the errors. Oransky wrote: We at Nature have examined the reports about the two papers from our referees and our own editorial records,” the editorial notes. “Before publishing, we had checked that the results had been independently replicated in the laboratories of the co-authors.” Nevertheless, the journal says this incident has highlighted flaws in the peer-review publishing process.

“We — research funders, research practitioners, institutions and journals — need to put quality assurance and laboratory professionalism ever higher on our agendas, to ensure that the money entrusted by governments is not squandered, and that citizens’ trust in science is not betrayed,” it adds.

The simple fact is that reviewers examine data, figures and materials and methods, but they have no gift of ESP to determine is the authors are telling the truth.  Truth-telling and honesty are virtues without which science cannot exist.  What is the basis of honesty and truth-telling?  Well, the secular, pragmatic worldview would suggest that truth-telling works and without it we cannot do science without it.  However, if truth-telling gets the individual scientist ahead for a time, then why shouldn’t they prevaricate?  What should the individual worry about what the collective thinks or needs?

It is at this point that I must interject that the Christian worldview provides the foundation for honesty and truth-telling.  The Christian tells the truth because God is the author of all truth and is by His very nature, the truth (see John 14:6).  To not tell the truth is to dishonor God and not live in accordance with his revealed prescriptions.  Therefore, the Christian worldview explains why we should tell the truth when reporting our experiments.


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.