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Last remaining support for controversial stem-cell papers collapses

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski.

UPDATE: The first sentence of the final paragraph of this story was changed on 5 June to clarify a source.

The retraction of two controversial papers that promised a simple way to create embryonic-like stem cells seems to be imminent today after the lead author unexpectedly gave her full consent. Haruko Obokata, of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, had been the last obstacle to the retraction of both papers.

She agreed to retract the second of the two studies last week, but her agreement yesterday to retract the first one, which detailed the fundamental mechanism behind her claims, paves the way for the unravelling of what was heralded as one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the year.

All co-authors of the papers, which claimed to have created a new type of stem cell, known as stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency (STAP) cells, now appear to have consented to the retraction. This leaves the papers’ fate in the hands of Nature, the journal that published the two studies in January. Requests for retractions with the unanimous support of the co-authors are usually authorized by the publisher. (Note: Nature’s news and comment team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

In the STAP studies, Obokata claimed that when she stressed cells by exposing them to acid or putting pressure on their membranes, they underwent a transformation to an embryonic-like cell. The STAP cells therefore shared the ability of embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to convert into any of the body’s cell types, promising a huge advance to biomedical research and clinical applications.

But Obokata’s papers quickly came under fire after various manipulated and duplicated images were found in them. After an investigation into the allegations, RIKEN found Obokata guilty of misconduct on 1 April. Earlier this month, it rejected her appeal of the judgement, and asked her to retract both papers. In the meantime, at least a dozen other research groups reported that they were unable to replicate her findings.

As the controversy escalated, several co-authors publicly stated their desire for a retraction. But Obokata and a senior co-author on the papers, Charles Vacanti, of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, stood by the papers.

However, in an unexpected move on 28 May, Obokata consented to the retraction of the second paper, which describes how STAP cells can form placental cells as well as embryonic-like and iPS cells. But she remained resolutely behind the main paper, considering the second “just an extension”, her lawyer Hideo Miki said.

Then, out of the blue on 30 May, Vacanti sent a letter to Nature asking for a retraction of the first paper, according to a source in Japan who is close to the story and has seen Vacanti’s letter. This move may have broken Obokata’s resistance. On 3 June she signed an agreement to retract the first paper and handed it to RIKEN, a spokesperson confirmed. The spokesperson says that the authors are now in discussion with Nature with regard to retraction of both papers. Nature does not discuss retractions until final decisions are made.


  1. Report this comment

    Sergio Stagnaro said:

    In my opinion, such as event casts a stain on clear selection of scientific articles to be published on the so called peer-reviews. On the other hand, however, they help to understand what accounts for the reason T2DM epidemics of CVD and cancer are growing epidemics, throwing discredit on the present Medicine.

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    Enzai Du said:

    In some fields such as biology, physics and chemistry, the deliberate fraud can be easily detected by repeating the experiment. However, in some other fields such as ecology or climate change science, it is really not easy to detect the academic cheating, such as modificating or chosing datasets to sopport the conclusions. I think it is necessary to publish the datasets along with the paper, so others may check it if they would like.
    Hope the Nature Journals can do it in the near future. I think more Haruko Obokatas will be found out.

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    Donald Newgreen said:

    There were derelictions of diligence and scepticism at several levels in this case, from research group right up to peer and editorial review. But consider: within days, possibly within minutes, of publication, doubts were being publicly expressed accompanied by reasons for that doubt. Within weeks, no, within days, attempts were being made at replication, and at the same time the text and images were being subject to detailed scrutiny. So, in the stem cell community there was a rapid self-correction resulting now in retraction. If only errors were detected and corrected so quickly in other walks of life.

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