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.
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.