In January, two papers were published in the prestigious journal Nature showing how to make stem cells using a shockingly simple and completely novel approach — by putting cells in an acid bath. The resultant mouse stem cells were called STAP cells (for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency). However, since then, other researchers have had great difficulty making their own STAP cells following the procedures in the papers, and there have been accusations of misconduct, specifically falsification and fabrication of data. After a great deal of controversy, the lead author, Haruko Obokata, announced last week, on June 4, that she agreed to retract both articles. Official retraction of the promising, and then disappointing, papers is imminent. (Nature generally wants all authors to agree to a retraction, and she was the last obstacle — all other authors appear to have also consented to retraction.)
Obokata, a researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, long defended the validity of the papers’ results and the creation of STAP cells, even after a RIKEN committee found that data had been “inappropriately handled” in March and then
evidence of misconduct (which they define as a malicious act, such as knowingly falsifying data) in early April. This was due to various duplicated and manipulated images in the papers.
As mentioned above, the inability of other researchers to clearly create STAP cells following Obokata’s protocols is part of what spurred the RIKEN investigation and eventual retraction process. It has been unclear whether any others have been successful in using the published protocols — any announcements about the creation of real STAP cells have been preliminary at best, and there has already been at least one publication showing that STAP cells could not be generated.
Specifically, the journal F1000Research published the findings of Kenneth Lee, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who long tried to reproduce the results of the original STAP papers. (For more on the originally-reported biology behind the STAP cells, you can check out the Biology Bytes post on How to Make Stem Cells… Using Acid!) Lee used the same types of cells as the ones used in the original studies, and tried to use the same protocols as closely as possible (the original methods were unclear at times), but was still unable to produce STAP cells. (In the open-access F1000Research journal, all underlying data is published for other researchers to closely examine and a transparent peer review system is used, which is altogether quite different from Nature, where the inability to scrutinize the data caused problems.)
So while we may not have learned a new effective method of making stem cells, this experience could still be a good lesson in the importance of having a journal share all available data behind a given publication, as well as being willing (if not eager) to publish negative results — like a study showing that the STAP method did not work — as well as the desirable positive results. After all, doing science is all about exploring what works as well as what doesn’t work!
For further reading:
- David Cyranoski’s blog post “Last remaining support for controversial stem cell papers collapses” in Nature News
- Mei Kuen Tang et al.’s article “Transient acid treatment cannot induce neonatal somatic cells to become pluripotent stem cells” in F1000Research
- Tracy Vence’s article “Final Straw for STAP?”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s blog post “The Latest on the STAP Controversy”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s blog post “How to Make Stem Cells… Using Acid!”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine