July 10, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Where will STAP cell mess go from here & key unanswered questions

stap cellsIn some ways it’s hard to imagine that it was only just over 6 months ago that Nature published the two STAP papers by a collaborative team of Japanese and American researchers.

It feels like years have gone by since then because so much has happened related to the STAP mess including the retraction of the papers and the tragic death of one of the STAP authors, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, last week.

Where does the STAP story go from here? Is it over?

In a way, it would be a big relief if it was over, but it doesn’t seem to be at an end.

What’s next for STAP? Some key events are still unfolding and critical questions remain.

RIKEN will continue its own STAP replication effort that includes STAP first author Haruko Obokata, but rumors are that it isn’t working. If the effort formally is considered to have failed in the end that will provide a sense of finality and that is certainly the most likely outcome. If, however, the team/institution says the results were inconclusive or provides some kind of wishy washy “maybe it worked” outcome, this could cause quite a stir.

There are calls for RIKEN to more thoroughly investigate the STAP-related conduct of its researchers since their preliminary investigation was widely viewed as too narrow in scope, but it’s somewhat iffy as to whether that will happen. I doubt there will be a renewed investigation.

It is also unclear what the future will be for the RIKEN CDB, where much of the STAP research took place. There have been calls for the CDB to be reorganized or dissolved.

Where did the supposed STAP cells come from? There have been indications from genetic tests that STAP cells may have come from different mice than originally published and that STAP cells might have been a mixture of cell types including ES cells and trophoblastic stem cells. Work is still ongoing to resolve this huge issue.

Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital might be investigating the STAP situation since researchers from there were authors on and integral to the STAP paper research as well. If an investigation is indeed ongoing, the results are unlikely to be made known until 2015. Assuming there isn’t a whitewash of the situation, the results of the potential Harvard investigation could be important for understanding the STAP mess, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that. I expect blame to be largely deflected from there to Japan.

There is also still the troubling and unresolved issue of how the STAP papers, with so many flaws, made it through the review/editorial process at Nature and got published. Although Nature published an editorial on the STAP fiasco at the time of the retractions, it frankly wasn’t insightful on what went wrong and the journal denied that the STAP situation could have been prevented. Many folks have doubts about that assertion.

Nature itself and reportedly other journals rejected earlier versions of STAP papers. Will the public ever learn more about what happened with these proto-STAP papers and what the reviewers thought of the science? Without that knowledge, the STAP story will remain incomplete and in a sense unresolved.

There is also the larger issue of what STAP might tell us about problems in science, particularly with the deeply troubling suicide of Dr. Sasai. I expect it will take the field quite some time to come to grips with this dark event and place it in the larger context of this situation overall and science more generally.

With so much negative stuff and events orbiting STAP, one of the positives that can come from STAP is that in a sense the wider scientific community collectively got it right on STAP after the papers came out. From my view, the STAP papers were not just wrong and contained misconduct, but also they were a threat to science as well as the reputation of the stem cell field. Further, STAP jeopardized many careers and much funding around the world. The fact that the STAP papers were retracted so quickly and that doubts were raised about STAP came out expeditiously, limited the harm from STAP greatly.

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