Perspectives on Lee Lab F1000 Paper that STAP Cell Method Does Not Work

GFP+ germ cellsA paper has been published reporting that repeated attempts to make so-called “acid bath stem cells” have failed.

At the end of January it was claimed in two Nature papers that a mild acid treatment created pluripotent or even totipotent stem cells that that the authors termed “STAP cells” or “STAP stem cells” (collectively referred to here as “STAP cells” in this post). I reviewed the papers here on the blog when they came out and raised key questions about them.

Since that time grave doubts about those papers and about STAP cells. Remarkably, the Nature papers, which contain plagiarism, image manipulation, image reuse, and other problems, remain as of today still published in unchanged form. However, there is little doubt that there are profoundly compromised and I believe it is really only a question of when, not if, Nature will editorially retract them.

Within a week of the STAP papers’ publication, I believe I was the first scientist to publicly question them and in the same February 6 post I raised a 5 top list of reasons for serious skepticism:

  • The STAP method & results are illogical.
  • The STAP team previously reported “spore” stem cells, which to my knowledge have not been independently replicated.
  • The team also previously reported adult pluripotent stem cells.
  • Evolution should have selected against a hair trigger for conversion to pluripotency or totipotency.
  • Why the delay to make human STAP cells?

That list today has only grown much longer with the serious problems in the papers themselves.

In the last few months, many labs have tried to make STAP cells or even to see if they could detect any glimmer of hope that this kind of technology would work, but to my knowledge no attempts have been successful. More than 10 such attempts were “published” right here on this blog as a novel crowdsourcing effort to clarify the STAP situation.

The relative methodological proximity of some of these attempts to the original papers and to newer protocols separately released by corresponding authors Haruko Obokata or Charles Vacanti‘s lab has varied.

One of the groups trying hardest and doing the best job to attempt to recapitulate STAP has been Dr. Kenneth Ka Ho Lee (known to many of us just as “Ken Lee”). In fact, Ken published his lab’s ongoing STAP-related work on ResearchGate.

He also put together the data and submitted it to Nature as a short paper via their Nature Brief Communications Arising mechanism, which seemed like a perfectly appropriate venue, but Nature rejected it without a clear explanation as to why.

The good news is that now Ken’s group has published his lab’s STAP replication attempt data on F1000 and you can read the new paper here. In short, for Ken’s lab the STAP cell approach just did not work. They did an admirable job trying to mirror the various STAP authors’ protocols, but to no avail.

Just as in the Obokata papers, Ken’s lab used an Oct4-GFP reporter and it definitely was a reporter that was operational as you can see GFP+ germ cells in a control image from Figure 1 of the paper above. But again acid treatment did not work in this new paper and the reporter did not turn on, which sums up in the text as follows:

In conclusion, we have not been able to replicate Obokata et al.’s findings to produce STAP stem cells from somatic cells. It appears that the method for producing STAP stem cells is not as simple and straight forward as has been reported.

As this new paper rightly discusses there may be good reasons why Ken’s and other labs aren’t getting STAP cell methods to work and some day someone may get it to work in some form, but sadly the simpler possible explanation growing in strength each day is that STAP is just not real.