September 26, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Beginning of End for STAP Cell Story? Possible Outcomes

The end of the STAP cell saga?
The end of the STAP cell saga?

A host of problems have emerged related to the two Nature papers on STAP cells and other publications by some of the same authors.

It’s only been just shy of 6 weeks since these papers came out, but doesn’t it feel like about 5 years?

Where will this all end? (update in 2020: closer to the final ending, here’s a post you might find interesting: Whatever happened to the STAP cell scientists including Haruko Obokata?)

Let’s first think about where it began and where it is now. This may helps us to predict when and how the field might finally be able to say or write “The End” (image from Wikimedia) on the STAP saga.

Interestingly the most serious STAP issue right now is not what I would have predicted at the beginning.

At first, once upon a time, I thought it likely that the most troubling point would be that the STAP cell methods could prove extremely difficult to reproduce by independent labs.

While replication has indeed not been reported, that’s not the biggest problem overall for STAP. The idea that STAP replication is the big problem and its resolution would be key to STAP redemption is now a myth.

Instead, the most vexing concerns relate to alleged serious issues in the STAP papers themselves and problems in other published work by some STAP authors.

This nightmarish stew of troubles includes multiple increasingly serious allegations of plagiarism, image duplication, image manipulation, and more unpleasant ingredients.

What this all means is that even if the STAP method is reproduced by other labs (and that remains possible), major STAP problems are going to remain.

So what are the main possible outcomes for the STAP stem cell situation?

  • Editorial retraction. As a result of its investigation Nature editorially retracts one or both of the STAP papers. This would be a very major action, but one that would unambiguously show that Nature is taking this troubling situation seriously. Why would Nature even consider such a severe step that essentially is also an admission of a major problem? For the journal, retraction, as painful as it would be, could be the first step to putting this disaster behind them.
  • Retraction attempt by some authors. Of course Nature may not choose to retract either STAP paper. However, a subset of STAP authors could ask that one or both of the papers be retracted, and in fact. Dr Teru Wakayama has just asked the other authors to do a retraction. At this point it seems highly improbable that all the authors would agree to retraction.
  • No retractions of either paper, leaving a painful, drawn out scandal. It is easy to see how the main parties involved in the STAP stem cell fiasco (some of the authors, Nature, RIKEN, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard) may not want any retractions. Who would? So there could well be no retraction. On the other hand given the seriousness of the allegations related to the papers, retraction may in fact be in the long term best interest of Nature and the institutions involved to start to put this behind them. The STAP situation will not spontaneously resolve or fade away.
  • No retractions and no major fallout. This one seems like more a dream than a possible reality at this point. Based on the facts as we know them today, I don’t see any reasonable chance that the STAP situation just goes away without leaving a mark…really a scar. This situation is not one that can be explained by a simple “oops” or “just a few simple mistakes here folks, nothing to see, move along…” A lack of retractions would still not mean an absence of bad consequences and some of these negative outcomes may well harm the entire stem cell field for a time.
  • And finally….Search for a ‘fall guy’ to blame. This possibility is not mutually exclusive with the others, but is in fact likely to occur with any of them. It seems to me quite probable that the parties involved in STAP are on the verge of a historic break up. RIKEN and Harvard may well end up pointing fingers at each. Some of the scientists involved may do the same against each other.

The bottom line is that none of us know what comes next for STAP, but it could get ugly or even outright tragic really fast….or it may drag out for many months or even years as a slow tortuous process. Either way it’s hard to imagine anything like a “and they lived happily ever after” ending.

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