Researchers retracted two contentious stem cell papers today after months of scrutiny uncovered multiple instances of misconduct. Alzforum reported on so-called STAP cells—short for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency—back in January (see Jan 2014 news story). Scientists led by Teruhiko Wakayama, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, Kobe, Japan, and Charles Vacanti, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, claimed to be able to convert white blood cells from mice into pluripotent ones by dipping them in acid.

Other researchers in the field questioned the papers soon after they were published. Images used in some of the figures resembled ones previously published by Haruko Obokata, the first author on both papers, and part of the methods section appeared to come verbatim from another paper. The RIKEN Institute conducted an extensive investigation and found evidence of fabrication, falsification, image manipulation, and plagiarism, mainly by Obokata, though RIKEN investigators additionally cited negligence by co-authors in checking over the data before submitting it to Nature. The authors of both papers decided they could not back them and agreed to a retraction. In it, the researchers wrote, “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. 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.”

Vacanti declined to speak with Alzforum, but issued a statement on his website that read in part, "In science, the integrity of data is the foundation for credible findings. I am 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. Although there has been no information that cast doubt on the existence of the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cell phenomenon itself, I am concerned that the multiple errors that have been identified impair the credibility of the manuscript as a whole."

These Nature papers join several other high-profile retractions in the stem cell field (see Apr 2014 news story and Jan 2006 news story). 

In a commentary, Nature editors concluded that the journal and paper referees could not have detected the problems with the STAP papers. However, Nature is reviewing its practices.—Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib


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News Citations

  1. Acid Bath Turns Cells Pluripotent
  2. Falsifications Cast Shadow Over Stem Cell Field
  3. Science Retracts Stem Cell Papers, Fallout Continues

External Citations

  1. retraction
  2. commentary

Further Reading

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Primary Papers

  1. . Retraction: Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. Nature. 2014 Jul 3;511(7507):112. PubMed.