TGIF stem cells on the brain: what’s on your mind?

Alan Trounson, the head or brains leading CIRM at one point.
Alan Trounson

I’ve always got stem cells on the brain.

What’s on your mind about stem cells?

There’s a ton going on so what specifically has got your attention? What are you thinking about? What has you excited? Depressed? Angry? Hopeful?

Headlines from the last few weeks:

  • Nuclear transfer ES cells compared to iPS cells
  • Trounson moves from CIRM and joins board of StemCells, Inc. See this striking follow up to this story.
  • STAP cell retractions
  • Angel Di Maria, Stem Cells, and the World Cup
  • Patient gets nose tissue stem cell tumor in spine 8 years after treatment
  • FDA guidelines on adipose tissue (think SVF) expected later this year
  • Other?

If you were sitting in the bar next to your stem cell buddy, what would you two talk about on this Friday TGIF?

Now in 2020, 6 years after I wrote the above post, what stem cell stuff is still on your mind? Is it all new stuff?

16 thoughts on “TGIF stem cells on the brain: what’s on your mind?”

  1. Our minds are really complicated ones. We need to exercise our minds properly otherwise minds will get destroyed by evil thought and actions.

  2. Waseda Univ. announced the results of their investigation of Dr, Obokata’s PhD thesis about 6 hrs ago, in a press conference broadcast live on internet streaming TV. In a nutshell, they found many serious problems in her thesis, but decided that none constituted misconduct (不正行為) and that all were errors and omissions (過失). Therefore, they said, there was no need to revoke her PhD. The reasons for finding no misconduct are so lame that they don’t warrant analysis here. They were all in the category of “the dog ate Dr. Obokata’s PhD thesis.”

    As far as I know, reaction to the finding of “no misconduct” has been 100% negative, as far as comments on Twitter by researchers. I personally share this strongly negative view of the conclusion reached by Waseda’s investigation.

    It remains to be seen what will happen from here.

    1. Let me add a couple of other information. The manuscript Obokata sent the Committee was the one updated in June, 2014, and the Committee considered that her story was reliable. I cannot believe how the Committee trusted what she said.
      In addition, as for the members of the Committee, at least three of five members including the chairman are graduates from or personnel of Waseda University. Would you think that such a investigative committee could judge in a neutral and fair manner?

      I cannot accept this conclusion. Never.

    2. Let’s look at the big picture. A few months ago Waseda announced that they will investigate a few hundred PhD theses from the institute Obokata got her degree from. I assume they did. The stance they take that ‘plagiarism with no ill intent is no misconduct’ sounds like it is common practice. Revoking Obokata’s degree would lead to a domino effect that could topple the entire house of cards.

      Move on along, nothing to see here.

  3. Another as yet unanswered question is why Riken hired Dr. Haruko Obokata as a Research Unit Leader (RUL) in the first place. RUL is a position roughly equivalent to Assistant Professor in the U.S. (five year term; the hiree is expected to function as a PI).

    One other RUL (who I’ll call RUL2) was hired at about the same time as Dr. Obokata in the Spring of 2013. I have no way to know who the unsuccessful applicants were, but I asked around and got a list of five researchers in Japan in the same general field as Dr. Obokata and RUL2, who I’ll call A through E (no relation to actual names). Let’s consider A through E as “virtual candidates” for the position for which Dr. Obokata was eventually hired.

    As I’m a seismologist I’m not able to evaluate the details of the research by each of these seven persons, but I or anyone else can look at the bibliometric (citation) data as a rough proxy. At least in my field, we look at the “hit” (maximum number of citations for someone’s most cited first-authored paper) , and the total cites as two measures of a researcher’s impact and total contribution. I made a graph for these seven persons with the “hit” on the vertical axis and total cites on the horizontal axis: (Ideally we’d want to know the numbers for each researcher in early 2013 when the hiring decision was made, but unfortunately the data base doesn’t have a “wayback machine” function, so we have to settle for the data as of now. Presumably the relative standing of the seven researchers hasn’t changed much in the last year.)

    This graph, and the associated table, shows clearly that Dr. Obokata had both the lowest number of total citations and least impactful “hit” of any of the seven researchers. This suggests that, in the absence of some specific non-quantitative reason for rejecting the ranking implied by the citation data, Dr. Obokata should not have been hired by Riken. Note further that this analysis considers only researchers inside Japan and that it seems highly likely that there would have also been more highly qualified candidates than Dr. Obokata from outside Japan.

    Since Riken is supported by the Japanese taxpayers they have a duty to make fair decisions in their personnel actions. Riken should explain the reasons why they considered Dr. Obokata more qualified than other applicants, but so far they have failed to do so. (Riken has only discussed this matter in pro forma terms: A search committee duly voted that Dr. Obokata was the most qualified candidate, so there’s nothing to see here, move along.)

    I’ve waited a while in the hopes that someone from Japan’s biological science community would bring this up, but no one has, so I’ll start the ball rolling.

    The bottom line: Riken (like Nature) has some heavy-duty explaining to do.

    1. The h-index is the one most commonly used in the biomedical sciences. I wonder how these folks would compare on that metric.

    2. Reality is connections get you positions – NOT country specific though – abilities and capabilities are secondary. Of course exceptions are just that, exceptions, brilliant scientists rise to the top irrespective of other issues… As an experienced person you should know better than others how things work in reality.
      Thanks for the post.

    3. Web of Science gives citations year by year, paper by paper. Miss Obokata’s numbers are so small that it’s trivial to calculate her metrics in Spring 2013. In fact, let’s assume that the decision to hire her was made before March 2013 when her appointment began, say in January or February. The citation numbers always come with a delay, so it’s fair to look at her total number of citations by the end of 2012.

      By the end of 2012, she had a total of 7 papers with 30 citations. Her most cited paper was cited 12 times. On 3 of her papers, she was first author, and the most cited one of those was cited 5 times by end of 2012). She had an h-index of 4 back then.

      To be fair, let’s look at RUL2 at that time, too. He/She had a total of 418 papers and an h-index of 7; most cited first author paper had 153 hits. That’s a bit closer to RUL caliber…

      I don’t know what RUL2 did until Spring 2013, but H.O. of course was already at RIKEN as a “visiting scientist”. She had been hired as such in 2011, at which point her metrics were would be best described as negligible. Obviously she had all of 2012 to get connected at RIKEN, which then led to her RUL position. “Visiting scientist” sounds to me something similar to postdoc, and I would certainly expect more than one paper per year from a postdoc…

      During her time at RIKEN from 2011 to Spring 2013, who was mentoring her? What projects was she working on? She didn’t publish too much, but she must have worked on something. With such minuscule publication metrics, she must have convinced her mentor, or someone she was working with of her genius?!? Obviously she can’t write papers, and she doesn’t sound like too good an experimentalist… XXXX
      Disclaimer: I’m a physicist, have never worked at RIKEN, and have no personal grudges whatsoever. I don’t know anyone involved. I’m just looking at the numbers (which is what physicists do), and cannot grasp who hired H.O. and why.

      (note: Post edited for content XXXX)

      1. I’m sorry, but your comment doesn’t make sense. Do you think a postdoc in neuroscience is expected to produce a first-author Nature paper every year? Sure she could have released 6 smaller papers in that short while, but I personally believe bigger and more complete papers are to be lauded, even if it means spending a year or two prioritizing them.

        This whole line of argument is misguided, in fact, because it looks only at metrics, but not at the obvious fact that by the time of her hiring, Obokata had two big papers on the way. The two papers were submitted to Nature in March, 2013, meaning most of the work had been completed at that point. From Riken’s standpoint, they were hiring a rising star.

        1. No, she could not have released 6 smaller papers, because as it turns out, she’s never written a paper by herself. Someone who plagiarizes 20 pages of her PhD thesis from the NIH web site does not know how to write a paper. To assume this person can publish a ‘big paper’ is poor judgment.

          Moreover, I assume that even at RIKEN you’re expected to get external funding, which (sad but true) nobody gives you based on dreams or hopes. Science funding is awarded based on a solid track record of publications.

          I share your utopistic dream of scientists working on their own, on projects nobody understands, publishing ‘big papers’ once in a decade that may be understood a few decades later like Peter Higgs, but as he put it himself, nobody would hire him now. I would love to believe that RIKEN is some sort of idealistic haven of free research with no pressure to publish X papers a year, but I don’t.

          Postdocs can be (and sometimes are) hired based on gut feeling, but I would hope bigger (semi)permanent positions are not. You have to demonstrate a track record of productivity. If you’re working on something ‘big’ that’s not yet published, you would have folders and folders of lab notes… The problem here is that Japanese decision makers don’t like to leave paper trails of what their decision making was based on, or what exactly was discussed in their decision making meetings.

  4. Probably most people outside Japan think the STAP fiasco has been brought to a close by the retractions of the two Nature papers by Obokata et al., but that’s not the case.

    Apparently due to strong pressure from the Ministry of Education, Riken is conducting “STAP verification experiments” with Dr. Obokata participating, although the details of her participation are not clear. See news story:

    While this experiment (I’m calling it the “STAP fiasco replication experiment”, “STAP失敗再現実験 “in Japanese) is ongoing, disciplinary action against Dr. Obokata (and others) is on hold. This allows Riken to kick the can down the road until at least November.

    In my opinion this experiment matches the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing as before but expecting a different result.

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