June 6, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

RIKEN Initial PR Reaction to STAP Cell Fiasco

The controversial STAP stem cell papers published in Nature had authors both from RIKEN in Japan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard.

What is the RIKEN interim take on the STAP cell situation?

STAP stem cells from RIKEN, Harvard
STAP spheres nice and green? Purported STAP stem cells.

We’ve had pretty much silence from Harvard itself on this matter publicly.

Dr. Charles Vacanti, senior author on one of the STAP papers, author on the other paper, and mentor of the first author on both papers, Dr. Haruko Obokata, has, however, been openly talking to the press. He continues to defend the papers and has indicated to the press no need for retraction.

RIKEN launched an investigation weeks ago.

Today RIKEN announced the preliminary findings of their still on-going investigation. The RIKEN press conference was nicely covered here by Karen Kaplan and Monte Morin of the LA Times and also discussed here in the Asahi Shimbun. The actual RIKEN press release (PR) is here.

One of the key statements quoted by Asahi Shimbun from RIKEN:

“We apologize for the confusion that has arisen. The authors seriously accept the fact that the discovery of inconsistencies in the articles damages its credibility and we have begun considering the possibility of withdrawing the articles through communications with our co-authors.”

It’s notable that they apologize for the confusion….not the actual problems.

RIKEN reportedly has focused on 6 issues according to the LA Times and its own PR with two of them having been resolved.

The first resolved issue involves the “unnatural appearance of colored cell parts shown by arrows” in one of the papers. The investigative committee determined that “the process of preparing these images did not constitute fabrication within the context of research misconduct.”

Is this referring to Figure 1f?

That end part of the quote seems very difficult to understand. Did something go wrong, but not serious enough to call misconduct?

The 2nd “resolved” issue was of the apparently duplicated placentas, which Dr. Wakayama has already taken responsibility for as an unintentional error due to the sheer number of files involved in putting the paper together.

The 4 unresolved issues according to the LA Times and the RIKEN PR:

  • “1. A figure in one of the papers appears to have been doctored. The figure shows key genetic changes in the reprogrammed cells.
  • 2. A sizable portion of the same paper seems to have been copied from a previously published study. The portion in question describes the researchers’ methods for examining chromosomes in the cells.
  • 3. The methods described in the section that appears to have been plagairized may not have been followed in the actual experiments.
  • 4. A picture of a mouse that was purportedly grown with STAP cells looks like a picture that was used in Obokata’s doctoral thesis, which was published in 2011.”

These are serious issues.

RIKEN also has four broader areas they are focusing on:

  • “(1) Confirmation of whether there has been research misconduct
  • (2) Reproduction of STAP cells
  • (3) Handling of the two papers published in Nature
  • (4) Future measures”

The reactions I’ve heard so far from the science community to RIKEN’s statement can be best summed up as great disappointment in it as not being rigorous or direct. One person described it as akin to a kid saying “the dog ate my homework.” Another mentioned concern that RIKEN may try to make Teru Wakayama into a scapegoat.

Looking for a positive side, it seems to me an unprecedented degree of openness for a situation like this and an incredibly rapid investigation.

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