STAP April Update: Super Stressful on All Fronts

What’s going on with the STAP cell situation now that it is into its third month?

It’s getting worse instead of better or clearer, at least in part due to RIKEN’s incomplete investigation.

What’s going on with STAP?

New RIKEN Press Conference

TJO stap

RIKEN reportedly held an odd sort of limited press conference today that TJO has tweeted was not encouraging at all (see above the first in TJO’s series of Tweets). I highly recommend following TJO on Twitter. Apparently RIKEN is still greatly limiting the scope of looking into STAP.

What else is going on?

Dr. Ken Lee Stops on STAP

The most prominent scientist testing replication of STAP, Dr. Ken Lee, has decided to no longer work on these efforts and/or report them on ResearchGate. Last week some media outlets greatly hyped a single preliminary result that Lee posted causing a lot of misinformation to be disseminated.

Waseda University Investigation

The Japan News reports that Obokata’s alma mater, Waseda University, will screen all its students’ theses for plagiarism. It has been alleged that Obokata’s thesis has extensive plagiarism. The same newspaper reports that Obokata will not be permitted to join in the RIKEN efforts at seeing if STAP can be verified.

Is RIKEN Fumbling its STAP investigation?

RIKEN, the premier biomedical research institute in Japan that was a hub of STAP research, is widely perceived to have fumbled on the situation in a number of ways.

Their efforts at a timely investigation into the matter were in theory potentially positive, but most folks that I have talked with seem to now feel that RIKEN’s motivations for the speed may have more to do with funding and politics in Japan as well as putting the story behind them than in a true desire to efficiently get to the bottom of things.

The general vibe is that RIKEN has botched key aspects of the investigation. For example, there are important elements of the controversy that RIKEN seems to have dismissed as unimportant or not addressed publicly at all such as the possibility of the STAP cells being contaminated with ES or iPS cells, and plagiarism.

There is a wider sense that RIKEN may have tried to make Obokata into a universal “fall guy” deflecting blame from some of the others involved in STAP. It’s difficult to know the facts of course for those of us on the outside and who is responsible for what.

Obokata in Hospital, But Scheduled to Give Press Conference in Just a Couple Days.

Meantime, Dr. Haruko Obokata (first author on both STAP Nature papers) reportedly is appealing RIKEN’s conclusion alleging that she engaged in misconduct and the plan was for her to give a public statement on Wednesday, but she now reportedly is in the hospital:

“…Haruko Obokata has been hospitalized today because her mental and physical condition is unstable,” the statement said. It said any reporter wishing to attend the Wednesday news conference must “be considerate of her mental and physical state.”

If Obokata is able to do the press conference on Wednesday despite the health issues, what might she say? It’s hard to know, but she is likely to dispute RIKEN’s claims.

What’s coming next for STAP?

I theorized in a recent post that STAP’s future course could well be similar to that of VSELs, another (perhaps related?) type of enigmatic stem cell. There is still largely nothing publicly  available on any investigations at Harvard/Brigham and Women’s Hospital on STAP, although a seminar scheduled for April 1 by the Nature article senior author, Dr. Charles Vacanti, was postponed. Realistically any potential news from Harvard looking into the matter (assuming they are doing so) is not likely to come out before 2015.

14 thoughts on “STAP April Update: Super Stressful on All Fronts”

  1. I watched Obokata’s press conference on TV today, April 9. Unfortunately there weren’t scientific arguments, and most of media showed lack of ability to question her adequately; consequently the fact isn’t in the least uncovered.
    In my view, she seems to protect someone else, who I guess is so-called Dr X, for some reason or other. Odd as it may sound, she rose to the occasion in her own way, I reckon. It’s no exaggeration to say that the scientific truth was covered up forever.

  2. …..’publish short papers in Nature and Science, rather than longer papers in the leading specialized journals in each field. This pressure might have indirectly led to the environment at …….in which the ….’.
    Excellent point! A very common phenomenon!. I’ve been through research organizations here where the head of the center/institute is always coaxing colleagues to publish in ‘big and famous journals’ without any input as to how one can do so!!! That’s because the evaluation committees judge the quality of science and leadership based on the ‘publication in these big and famous journals’. The reality is unless one pursues research into unknown and game changing ideas (which may or may not work) it’s difficult to publish in the so called famous journals. On the other hand you are not allowed to embark on something new as the PI and assoc Prof may not have any clue about that particular research and you are discouraged with ‘you are being paid by the grant money’ which effectively limits you to work on the grant-related work. Also the strict hierarchy at most places will never allow to one come up path-breaking work. That’s very inconvenient to all…. Reality bites! Very few researchers walk the talk, although they do talk a lot..

  3. Riken’s press conference on April 7, can be found on YouTube:

    I find it a litlle odd that the three Riken guys (Dr. Niwa, Dr. Aizawa, and Mr. Tsuboi, one of the six members of Riken’s board) all continue to use the term “STAP phenomenon.” At this point, with the Obokata et al. paper having been discredited due to misconduct issues, there’s no evidence, to my knowledge, for the existence of any such thing as a “STAP phenomenon,” but the repeated use of this term might lead to the general public believing that it’s real, or at least is a serious possibility.

    1. This is a very important point. RIKEN’s naive approach ended up creating a unicorn called the STAP phenomenon. A unicorn exists as a name and in such case it is difficult to disprove its existence, inasmuch as it next to impossible to prove it. Similar examples include sasquatch, ghosts, UFOs, etc.

    2. Do we know if “STAP phenomenon” is not the equivalent to “la cagada de las STAP”, as we refer to the episode in Spanish? That is “STAP irreparable error” in English.

      Unfortuantely I lack Japanese language or culture knowledge to judge.

  4. As stated on page 1 (page 3/64 in the PDF) of Riken’s annual report for 2012-13 (for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013)
    “We will carry out a major reorganization in April 2013, and with it embark on a bold new path.”

    What the reorganization in April 2013 actually did was to greatly strengthen the power of the government bureaucrats on secondment to Riken and weaken the ability of the Riken scientists to run things. The bureaucrats are putting very strong pressure on scientists at Riken to publish short papers in Nature and Science, rather than longer papers in the leading specialized journals in each field. This pressure might have indirectly led to the environment at Riken in which the STAP paper fiasco occurred.

    Ironically, the STAP fiasco will probably lead to even more strengthening of the power of the bureaucrats, who will presumably argue (not without at least some justification) that the fiasco was caused by lax management and supervision.

  5. Hi again as is highlighted at the end of this article, Harvard/Brigham and Women’s Hospital has to address this and is probably enjoying the deflection of interest! (sorry to rattle cages guys). But I cannot believe just one person is to blame here! In addition Nature themselves are the main instigators in the fact that no due diligence was performed or I should say not to a high enough standard! Hopefully all parties come clean here and stop burying their heads in the sand…this will then hopefully mend some of the damage caused in terms of the publics perception of the stem cell field!! Sorry about the rant

  6. Taro san- Riken has produced outstanding research work since it’s inception and although the current saga is an unfortunate anomaly, Riken’s existence shouldn’t be questioned!. There are some rotten apples in any organization. Just focus on the issue at hand – the mythical STAP cells….

  7. Although I’ve already gotten fed up with a fuss of RIKEN, once again I repeat that RIKEN should be broken up on this occasion.
    As it turned out, it seems that RIKEN intends to conceal something, which I guess is Dr. X’s involvement in this incident. You could easily imagine who Dr. X stands for. For this reason, the investigation panel of RIKEN won’t verify with seized samples of alleged STAP.

    1. i’m hopeful that the very-thorough, super-sleuthing japanese academics behind will kick it up a notch and find out for themselves what the big coverup is.

      coughcough GLG coughcough.

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