Journal retracts stem cell papers

  • Article by: ANDREW POLLACK , New York Times
  • Updated: July 2, 2014 - 5:44 PM

Scientists unable to redo work hailed as significant.

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Researcher Haruko Obokata, lead author of the discredited research papers on stem cells.

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Two scientific papers that initially electrified biologists by describing an easy way to make stem cells were retracted Wednesday by the journal that published them after they were found to be riddled with “critical errors.”

The papers, published in Nature in January, were a source of pride in Japan, where much of the research had been done in the government-backed Riken Center for Developmental Biology. The lead scientist, Haruko Obokata, became a celebrity.

But pride soon turned to embarrassment as one error after another came to light, and an internal investigation by Riken concluded that Obokata had misrepresented or altered images.

So far, independent scientists have not reproduced the work described in the papers, raising doubts about whether the simple way to produce stem cells really exists.

“We apologize for the mistakes,” the authors of the two papers wrote in a retraction.

“These multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole, and we are unable to say without doubt whether the STAP-SC phenomenon is real,” they wrote. “Ongoing studies are investigating this phenomenon afresh, but given the extensive nature of the errors currently found, we consider it appropriate to retract both papers.”

STAP-SC stands for stem cells resulting from stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. The researchers reported in January that regular cells taken from the body could be turned into stem cells by simply exposing them to stress, such as dipping them in an acid bath.

That seemed to provide an easy way to create multipurpose stem cells that could then be turned into different types of tissues, which might one day be used to treat diseases.

The retraction notices listed five errors that were not previously disclosed in the Riken investigation.

While many of the authors of the work at Riken had previously agreed to a retraction, one holdout had been Dr. Charles A. Vacanti of Harvard University and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He had been Obokata’s supervisor when she was a graduate student in his laboratory and was the senior author of one of the papers.

In a statement Wednesday, Vacanti said he was “deeply saddened by all that has transpired, and after thoughtful consideration of the errors presented in the Riken report and other concerns that have been raised, I have agreed to retract the papers.”

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