A tale of two stem cell retractions: stark contrast between Macchiarini & Egli

Macchiarini retraction

A paper retraction is a major, painful step in science, but sometimes it is necessary and in the past few weeks we’ve seen news of two high-profile stem cell paper retractions. However, these retractions were handled entirely differently by those involved and were prompted by very distinct situations. Update: for some background on stem cell manuscript retractions more generally see from Retraction Watch here and from this blog here.

In the case of a JCI stem cell manuscript retracted by Dieter Egli’s lab, a central problem was with the cells used in the study. The IPS cells had major genomic abnormalities it turned out, prompting the retraction. Senior author Egli and first author Hailing Hua agreed to the retraction due to this problem and due to the fact that after Hua left Egli’s lab, the lab was unable to reproduce the results reported in the paper. As difficult as any retraction is, it seems like Egli handled it far better than most groups do.

Macchiarini retraction

In the second stem cell paper retraction case, we see quite a contrast to the first. Here we have former “star” surgeon Paolo Macchiarini retracting a paper from Nature Communications entitled “Experimental orthotopic transplantation of a tissue-engineered oesophagus in rats”. Retraction Watch has been on this case for some time and done a lot of other reporting on Macchiarini’s travails that involve investigations of other papers too. The Karolinska Institute (KI) dismissed Macchiarini amid accusations of misconduct.

Now for this retracted Nature Communications paper, he reportedly blames KI for losing data, which doesn’t seem like taking responsibility. KI’s investigation has raised concerns about the integrity of the study. Another issue with the Macchiarini work is that it has higher stakes given its role as supposedly supportive of potential work in human patients. Leonid Schneider has some strong words for Macchiarini including on this retraction and on other issues and papers, invoking misconduct.

Overall, my impression is that the stem cell field is not exactly rife with retractions relative to other fields such as cancer research, but when there are retractions it is important to take note and discuss what happened. These two specific cases present such stark contrasts that comparing them is of interest.

4 Comments


  1. I’m glad that you brought this up, Paul.

    These are the results of two very different personalities. Dieter Egli does excellent work- he doesn’t, as do others in the field, select the data that support his idea and keep secret the data that disagree. I applaud him for retracting the paper when he discovered that the cells used by his postdoc were abnormal…I’m sure that he has learned from that mistake and imposes more rigor on his scientists now.

    Macchiarini, on the other hand, loves the spotlight, and it seems likely that he is willing to provide only the data that make him look good. Scientists all have pretty strong egos and tend to be self-righteous – after all, we have the ability to discover things that were never known before. But Egli feels an obligation to be truthful about mistakes, while Macchiarini, not so much. If they were politicians, Egli would be Obama and Macchiarini, Trump.


  2. Brings up the epic problem in scientific publishing that negative results never get published – we could all learn as much if not more from what was tried and didn’t work than only the positive results. Speaking of which, did you see this Lancet publication https://goo.gl/BKDf7E This is appears to be a well designed clinical study, but seems to fall flat on seeing any sort of therapeutic benefit. Although it’s not the specific purpose of a PhII trial, that’s something always hoped for.

    Curious on your interpretation. I don’t have a Lancet subscription so can’t see all of the details, specifically how the cells where isolated and qualified.


  3. Regarding the paper by Dieter Egli, one has to read the retraction note carefully, as it suggests there are more serious issue than thus using chromosomal abnormal lines.

    The most critical and toxic part of the retraction is this “by the way” sentence:
    “They also cannot confirm the endonuclease-mediated correction of the mutant GCK G299R allele”

    This suggests possible fabrication of results and the generation of mutant cell lines (regardless of the chromosomal status!). The paper reported unique results and phenotype of these GCK G299R mutant lines in comparison to WT control lines, but now the authors tell us there is no proof these mutant lines ever existed ? how were these results generated then ?

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