Acid-bath stem cell papers are finally retracted

Posted: July 2, 2014 at 2:45 pm

The STAP stem cell saga has reached its bitter conclusion for now.

The authors of two papers published by the journal Nature, which claimed to have produced embryonic-like stem cells from adult cells, have retracted them.

The papers said that almost any adult cell could be coaxed into becoming a stem cell just by dipping them in a bath of acid for 30 minutes. The method held great promise for regenerative medicine because it could be used to create any cell without needing to reprogram genes, or destroy an embryo. The team, led by researchers at the Riken Institute in Kobe, Japan, called this technique stimulustriggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP.

But in the months after publication, no independent team was able to replicate the experiments. Instead, the researchers around the world scrutinising the papers exposed many flaws in the papers including manipulated pictures of protein gel panels and mislabelled images. A public flogging of many high profile researchers ensued (see ""How the STAP cell story unfolded", below) and Nature's review process was thrust into the spotlight.

The journal published two statements today from the authors saying they were retracting both papers. The statements include an apology from the authors, in which they admit that multiple errors impair the credibility of the study. They concede that they are unable to say without doubt whether the STAP cell phenomenon is real.

An accompanying Nature editorial says that in practice, it may be impossible for journals to police gel panels routinely "without disproportionate editorial effort". The journal says it is now reviewing its screening practices to increase such checks.

The editorial goes on to say that Nature believes that its editors and referees could not have detected the fatal faults in this work. However, it emerged during the investigation that the papers were first submitted for publication in Science. According to a Nature News blog, Science rejected them after spotting the manipulated images and warning the lead author of the papers, Haruko Obokata, that such composite images need to be marked. Soon after the papers were published, independent bloggers started finding discrepancies in the work.

The Nature editorial states that the episode has highlighted flaws in Nature's procedures. The journal says that it needs to put quality assurance even higher on its agenda to make sure that people's trust in science is not betrayed.

Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School, one of the authors on the papers, has said that he is deeply saddened by the whole episode, although he continues to believe that none of the issues cast doubt on the existence of STAP cells themselves. He says he is encouraged that Riken president Ryoji Noyori and other independent labs will now allow sufficient time to try to replicate the experiments.

29 January Two high profile papers are published in Nature claiming that adult cells could be coaxed into becoming stem cells by dipping them in a bath of acid for 30 minutes. The team call these new cells stimulustriggered acquisition of stem cells, or STAP cells.

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Acid-bath stem cell papers are finally retracted

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