STAP Cell Chatter From ISSCR Meeting

STAP cells
Purported STAP cells.

What were people saying about STAP cells at the ISSCR 2014 meeting?

It was a tale of two meetings when it came to STAP at ISSCR.

Officially, bigwigs at the podiums only briefly mentioned it and they seemed to collectively argue that STAP was something unfortunate, but that the bigger danger was the overreaction to it.

Thus, remarkably their key concern seemed to be their perception of an overreaction to STAP rather than STAP itself.

Outside the lecture halls in the other halls (between rooms of the convention center) and in the restaurants, etc., it was an entirely different story. Amongst the general population of stem cell researchers, the STAP cell situation itself was considered the big deal. Although there was definitely some serious STAP fatigue and I share that, people still were eager to talk about it.

Below is a list of the top points raised by people at the meeting regarding STAP. I’m not endorsing these notions or saying they are right and indeed some may just be gossip, but they are intriguing to think about nonetheless:

  • 1. If the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) is “disbanded”, it will most likely be reconstituted under a new name with mostly the same people. Just wishful thinking?
  • 2. Most of us stem cell folks are opposed to any kind of punitive action taken against the CDB overall. Why punish the whole CDB?
  • 3. Part of the motivation for the intense misguided push initially for STAP cells was due to the STAP folks wanting to compete and “beat” iPS cells. Wildly misguided by those involved?
  • 4. The whole STAP cell fiasco germinated from lack of fundamental knowledge of cell biology with naive misinterpretation of autofluorescence of dead and dying cells and from ignorance of stem cells.
  • 5. STAP cells used in the mouse studies in the Nature letter were most likely actually a combination of ES cells and trophoblastic stem cells.
  • 6. Nature published the STAP papers despite at least some remaining reviewer concerns.
  • 7. RIKEN is having Obokata “help” with the STAP replication efforts so that if/when they fail that should be the final end OR, alternatively and pretty much the opposite, RIKEN/the government are hoping that Obokata can get some vaguely positive results leaving the STAP issue not entirely dead and that the vagueness will keep things uncertain for years.

What are you hearing?

8 thoughts on “STAP Cell Chatter From ISSCR Meeting”

  1. Let’s see if they even bother to change names… The Japanese media seems to have swallowed the bait, and is now reporting about the “STAP verification experiments”, and Obokata’s participation. I’m somewhat amused by the measures to assure transparency “Riken will ensure the process stays transparent by putting Obokata under full surveillance, either physically or by camera.” (quote from Japan Times) Seriously?!? Who’s going to watch the surveillance videos?!? I don’t think many mentor level scientists who actually could spot possible misconducts after watching the videos over and over again really have the time for that… And even if Riken were to hire a senior scientist for this job, who would accept such a ridiculous job?!?

    These verification experiments and the surveillance bullshit are purely to win the public opinion and to convince politicians and administrators (who understand absolutely nothing about science) that Riken/CDB is “taking matters seriously”. These are simply populistic stunts to clear Riken/CDB’s face, which cost quite a lot and should absolutely not be funded by public science monies. The only reason I can see for such face clearing is to assure continuity in CDB and its leaders.

    As for #2, of course the CDB is full of serious, honest, and very good scientist, who should be allowed to continue their good work. At the same time, the Riken reform panel is right that CDB leaders who allowed all this to happen were not doing their jobs properly, and that it is a structural fault of Riken as a whole that created the environment for such misconducts to take place. And instead of trying to identify its structural faults, Riken has been focusing on a quick coverup. Unless Riken’s structural faults are fixed, similar scandals are likely to happen in other Riken branches, too. Obviously any structural reconfigurtation puts many of the “good scientists” at CDB in a crappy position which they did not deserve. I dont know which is worse, to get in a crappy position, or, to keep working in a broken organization that fosters scientific misconduct.

  2. As for your item 1, if one lives in Japan for many years, we come to realize that this ‘Name-changing’ business is real. Not only those in the entertainment world (movie actors, singers, traditional story-tellers like rakugokas), but even sumo wrestlers, and corporate entities and banks (you name it), do it routinely, to get a ‘new face’ after being caught for misdemeanors. So, the CDB of RIKEN ‘disbanding’ itself and re-appearing under a new name is an easy solution for STAP fiasco.

  3. One of my undergraduates was excited by the STAP paper and followed the protocol using MSCs that we grow to replicate it. He did not give up when it did not work the first few times. He trying because he figured the reprogramming efficiency was very low.

    He, like other people want an easy and fast reprogramming method to be true, just like we wanted cold fusion to be true. Do you recall the 1989 hype following the cold fusion announcement? I remember being very excited about this “breakthrough”. I recall that at first several labs thought that they saw something close to, but lower efficiency, than that of Pons and Fleishmann’s results. Some assumed their negative results or partial results did not discount the published findings. Over time, the lack of replication killed it off, but think of the wasted resources that went toward pursuit of the fraud… I think that is what will happen with STAP. Nature is great at rejecting papers but they did not reject this paper. That is cause for concern.

    1. Thanks.
      Nope. Not one. At this point the consensus seems to be that STAP was completely bogus.
      However, as I wrote, it was concerning that many of the top “leaders” thought the real problem was not STAP, but rather that people had supposedly overreacted to it.

      1. By now you would probably ruin your reputation by admitting to still believe in STAP.

        Anyway, has anyone asked Obokata or a collaborator if they controlled for autofluorescence?

  4. Paul:
    A lot has bothered me about STAP. But what bothers me most at the moment was the suggestion that the STAP story was rooted in envy. Shinya Yamanaka was not part of the old boys club of developmental biologists at Riken and they may resent his fame and success. If you notice at the meetings, Yamanaka is with his group of scientists and the other Japanese scientists stay together as a separate groups. I think there is some great science at Riken, and I’m saddened that they felt that they had been overlooked in the excitement over iPSCs. When I toured stem cell labs in Japan a couple of years ago, I got the distinct feeling that there was very little collegiality among the institutes- it was surprising and disappointing to me.

    1. Good points, Jeanne. Thanks for the comment. Yamanaka has always struck me as more interested in science and in being a good mentor than in status, but the same cannot be said of some others.

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