Personal Reflections on STAP Cell Mess On 1-Year Anniversary

It seems hard to believe it was a year ago that the STAP cell Nature papers came out to much fanfare on January 29, 2014.

These now discredited and retracted papers reported a supposed new method to easily make reprogrammed powerful stem cells, a finding touted as a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery.

Obokata Vacanti
Vacanti and Obokata in happier days before STAP crashed and burned.

Now a year later on January 29, 2015 the STAP finding has been thoroughly repudiated,  one author Haruko Obokata has resigned after her own institute found her guilty of misconduct and she couldn’t make STAP cells again when observed by others, another STAP author Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide, RIKEN CDB as the institute where much of the STAP work occurred has been reorganized, and there has been some chaos related to STAP more generally.

As someone who was perhaps the first to publicly question the STAP papers, I have to admit that I’ve been doing some soul searching as this mess has unfolded and now more recently with some water under the bridge.

My feeling when I first read the STAP papers in January 2014 still holds true today: there was something profoundly wrong with the STAP research and the papers. I still don’t have all the answers as to what went so wrong even though we have more insights today, but these paper had “trouble” written all over them.

It wasn’t, however, just that the papers reported incorrect findings.

What concerned me most was the threat that these papers posed to the stem cell field and to specific people who might be misled and harmed by them. That’s what sparked me to action to do something about it.

Believe me it wasn’t that easy a decision because I knew there’d be consequences for publicly questioning two Nature papers and particularly to do that non-anonymously.

When STAP first came out, scores of labs around the world started doing STAP-related  experiments and precious resources were being wasted. People mentioned that entire doctoral or postdoctoral studies might switch to be focused on STAP. These folks included vulnerable trainees who could have had their careers damaged or ruined if they had continued working on STAP as a focus.

In the old model of dealing with profoundly flawed science it could take years to clarify STAP as incorrect and many people would have been hurt. So we just didn’t have that time. The new model of rapid post-pub review proved very helpful in the STAP situation.

The reputation of the stem cell field also could have been seriously hurt by STAP. Some may same that STAP has still been a black eye to the stem cell field even the way we rapidly debunked it, but that’s not my view.

The quick yet respectful way that the stem cell field handled STAP is actually a great example of science getting something right on a particularly difficult situation. If we hadn’t debunked STAP so quickly, other negative consequences for the stem cell field could have come of it too including STAP authors being high-profile speakers at important stem cell meetings. Basically the stem cell field could have ended up at least partially “owning” STAP, which would have been a very bad thing. Instead, the stem cell field does not own STAP even if there are problematic things facing the stem cell field more broadly that we need to realize are not entirely unique to STAP.

Still, was the way we (and I) dealt with STAP ideal?

I don’t think so, but it was a damn hairy situation.

In 20-20 hindsight, I am sure I would have done some things differently. There were times that perhaps it went too far in being either too intense or conversely not probing enough, but given the unprecedented nature of STAP and its complexity, overall I’d say the debunking of STAP went about as well as one could have hoped. Even so it was a wild, disturbing ride with the particularly tragic turn of STAP senior author Dr. Sasai committing suicide.

We can wish that STAP had never happened (I sure do) or that the STAP papers had come out in some obscure journals rather than Nature or that other things had been different, but for most of us in the stem cell field there was nothing that could have been done to prevent STAP or even fundamentally change it prior to January 29th. The exceptions of course are the STAP authors, reviewers, and editors, who in theory could have taken different actions to prevent or change the course of STAP.

We know the STAP authors of course. The editors of the STAP paper at Nature may not be widely known, but it’s pretty clear who they were. The STAP paper reviewers remain largely unknown. Do these folks have some share of STAP responsibility? Sure. However, without more information from Nature, which is unlikely to ever come, it’s hard to say how to even tackle this question any more specifically.

There are more STAP cell documents containing potentially important information that have not yet seen the light of day, but these are sensitive documents. Would it be a net positive to release them? I’m not sure.

We also have still yet to hear any kind of insightful information about STAP from the other part of the team here in the US or their institutions, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Will that come eventually and shed more light on what went wrong with STAP? It’s hard to say.

There is so much amazing work going on in the stem cell field that is very real and deserves attention and resources. It’s an exciting, even amazing time to be a stem cell scientist. However, we can’t only focus on the good stuff or take an ostrich with its head in the sand approach. As we’ve seen recently, there are going to be more STAP-like situations so we need to be open and cautious as well as hopefully learning a thing or two from STAP as we look to the future.

I’m still very excited and optimistic about stem cells and regenerative medicine. Like many folks, after STAP and other recent stem cell paper flaps, I’m probably a bit less trusting and more skeptical, but perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing.

3 thoughts on “Personal Reflections on STAP Cell Mess On 1-Year Anniversary”

  1. I read somewhere in the Japanese press this week that Obokata would be sued for an alleged theft of the ES cells from Wakayama’s lab by someone who, as far as I remember, was her senior at CDB. Trying to say – it has not finished, yet.

  2. Hi Paul, From the outside looking in, I’d say that the reputation of the stem cell community has only been enhanced by this STAP stuff. Mistakes happen. Fixing them with such vigour shows character.

    Perhaps Nature got a bit of a black eye. But then Nature is wedded to the “wow-factor” — always risky.

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