Nature Post-Pub Examination of Its Own STAP Stem Cell Papers Breaks New Ground

Nature

What’s the latest surprise on the STAP stem cell front?

There have been many unexpected turn along the way in the past few weeks of the rollercoaster ride the stem cell field is on related to STAP stem cells, the super powerful stem cells reportedly (in two papers in Nature) made “simply” by exposing cells to stresses such as a weak acid solution.

Nature

One of the biggest STAP surprises for me came in a piece a few days ago from Nature itself by one of my favorite science writers, David Cyranoski.

In a striking move, Nature Publishing Group seems to be on some level investigation its own papers that it itself just published a few weeks ago on STAP.

Cyranoski reports in his new piece that Nature sent out a survey to top stem cell labs around the world to see if they had gotten STAP to work:

“None of ten prominent stem-cell scientists who responded to a questionnaire from Nature has had success.”

Nature would seem to have done a form of community post-publication review of its own papers.

Yes, one can say that Nature and Nature News, the latter of which carried the Cyranoski piece, are not 100% precisely one and the same thing, but I’d say this is still a novel development. And even Cyranoski wrote that Nature had sent out the questionnaire, not specifically Nature News.

I asked Cyranoski about this whole situation and he was kind enough to answer. Note that he indicated that this was his own personal opinion and that he doesn’t speak as a representative of Nature:

“When I approach a scientific article in Nature I don’t think I approach it any differently than papers from other publishers. If anything, when controversy surrounds a Nature paper, I feel more motivated to get to the bottom of it. I certainly wouldn’t think it would go away if I don’t report on it, so best to stay on top of it.
For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with many of the commenters that it is too early to pass judgment on the experiments by Obokata, et al. No one replicated, and many did not believe, the pioneering mouse cloning studies of Teruhiko Wakayama (one of Obokata’s co-authors) for a year. He ended up visiting other scientists’ laboratories to teach them exactly what to do before getting widespread acceptance of his technique. And there have been problems (errors, duplications) in many papers in this field–such as Dolly (which also was not replicated for quite some time) and Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s SCNT experiment (which has not been replicated but whose errors have, to my mind, been sufficiently explained). Of course successful replication by other groups will be key to building confidence. It appears that Dr. Obokata’s team is going to provide a more detailed account of their protocol soon. I hope that proves the technique effective. If not, and if there’s more reason to doubt her technique, I would want to cover it thoroughly.”

Kudos to him.