Acid-bath stem cell creation method: hoax or hiatus?

By Philippa Brice

11 March 2014


Papers detailing a new method for creating pluripotent stem cells hailed as revolutionary by experts when it was published earlier this year are now facing calls for retraction.

The papers from RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology researchers in Japan revealed an entirely new method for inducing adult stem cells to revert to a pluripotent (reprogrammable) state based on stress, notably induced via an acid bath. There was great excitement over this technique in the global biomedical community, dubbed STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency), since it showed great potential for human application and therapeutic development.

However, despite initially highly enthusiastic reactions from other experts around the world, doubts rapidly emerged. First, the authenticity of some images was called into question. Next, researchers who rushed to try and replicate the process were unable to do so. Last week authors from  RIKEN released a more detailed guide to the procedure with technical tips to help other researchers successfully apply it to the independent creation of STAP cells.

Yesterday, however, one of the collaborating authors told Japanese television that the paper should be withdrawn due to the ‘many mistakes’ that had emerged, such as the revelation that some of the images were duplicated from the doctoral thesis of the lead author. Of note, Professor Teruhiko Wakayama of Yamanashi University did emphasise that the best approach would be to revisit the work and check its legitimacy by attempting to recreate it successfully in a new paper without mistakes, adding "If it turns out to be wrong, we would need to make it clear why a thing like this happened". 

What is not yet clear is whether this is a case of some carelessness with one or more authors cutting a few corners in the rush to publish, or of convincing and deliberate fraud on the part of one or more of the authors. Obviously, from a biomedical perspective it is to be hoped that the former is the case and that the method will prove to be reproducible, and have the anticipated impact on more practical, affordable and ethical stem cell creation. 

On the face of it, it seems highly unlikely that any stem cell researcher would attempt any sort of falsification of research data, not only because it is anathema to the scientific approach but more practically because a paper making such ambitious claims would inevitably be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny. Indeed the lead author Dr Haruko Obokata explained to the press how she had had to amass increasing amounts of evidence before it became sufficiently compelling for a journal to accept her paper for publication. 

However, the stem cell community has been rocked by such a thing before with the once renowned South Korean researcher Professor Hwang Woo-Suk of Seoul university, who published a Science paper detailing the first successful cloning and production of patient-specific stem cell lines, which was similarly hailed a ‘ground-breaking’ but subsequently revealed to be pure fabrication. Importantly, the RIKEN paper was not the product of a single research group but had several collaborating authors besides Prof Wakayama, including members of Charles Vacanti's group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital / Harvard University, making the falsification of results substantially less likely. 

RIKEN is said to be investigating the case, but the two relevant papers have not at the time of writing been retracted from Nature, nor have the other collaborating authors commented. Hopefully it will turn out that the irregularities that have emerged are only minor, and that another group will soon be able to reproduce and validate the research.

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