October 27, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Harvard’s Role in STAP Cell Debacle

STAP STEM, stap cell
STAP stem cell mess.

What is Harvard’s role in the STAP cell mess?

If you have been living in a cave somewhere for the last 6 weeks, to catch you up to speed, an international collaborative team published two papers in Nature reporting the creation of powerful stem cells–so-called STAP stem cells–via a simple method of stressing ordinary differentiated cells out such as by dipping them in a weak acid solution. But other stresses supposedly could simply promote this alchemy-esque transformation as well.

The report was incredibly exciting but seemed too good to be true to many around the world. We still do not know if STAP stem cells were actually ever really created or not at this point, but to my knowledge no one else in the world so far seems to be able to independently replicate creation of STAP cells. Perhaps more time is needed such as a full year, but so far at least it isn’t look promising.

The team included researchers both from Japan’s RIKEN institute and Brigham & Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Since their initial publication, the STAP stem cell papers and the authors have come under scrutiny. A disturbing, still-growing series of major problems have emerged. In fact some of the authors on the Nature letter have now asked that the papers be retracted, while other authors, notably Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women’s/Harvard Medical School, reportedly remain opposed to retraction.

Allegations related to the papers and other publications by this team include multiple instances of plagiarism, image duplication, image manipulation, and more. This is serious stuff.

One bizarre element of this STAP story has been the stark contrast between how Harvard and RIKEN have reacted to this situation, at least in the public domain.

RIKEN has stated it has opened an investigation, held a press conference, and more. Japanese news media have been all over this story. As much as RIKEN’s response to the situation can be criticized, at least they have been somewhat openly dealing with it.

At the same time, what has been Harvard’s response to the STAP situation?

Cue crickets chirping….silence.

So what is Brigham and Women’s/Harvard Medical School’s role here?

Certainly they share significant responsibility for the two STAP papers. Dr. Obokata (first author on both STAP papers) received substantial mentoring at Brigham and Women’s/Harvard Medical School.

The STAP cell patent application appears to have been submitted by Brigham and Women’s on behalf of the group.

If US institutions have investigations ongoing (perhaps they don’t see a need for one?) Harvard and/or Brigham and Women’s policies may prohibit public disclosure of it.

In fact even after such a hypothetical investigation (again if there even is one) were complete, we may never publicly learn of the outcome or only many years down the road. Meanwhile in total contrast in Japan there is huge pressure for immediate action and relatively speaking a massive amount of public discourse on the situation.

A Tale of Two Cities…or should I say of Two Countries, and one shared very strange scientific story.

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