August 5, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Nature yanks article that was actually advertisement on controversial stem cells

Something very strange just happened at the journal Nature related to what’s called Muse cells. Kudos to them for dealing with it quickly though.

They published an unreviewed research “article” on controversial (perhaps non-existent) stem cells called “Muse cells” that was actually a paid advertisement. After I communicated with the Nature team eventually they ended up pulling down the ad/article as of today.

Muse cell ad on Nature
Screenshot of MUSE cell article/ad in Nature.

How can a research article be an advertisement? I don’t think it should be possible.

An “ad/article”?

Of course, research journals run more standard ads for things like reagents, equipment, and meetings, as a source of income, and that’s totally understandable, but this particular situation with the Muse cell ad/article was very different and weird.

The Nature ad/article came into being via something called “Nature Research Custom Media”. It seems to be a “sponsored content” branch of Nature Publishing Group. It’s another source of income for the big company Springer Nature.

You can see a screenshot of the top portion of the webpage when it used to have this Muse cell ad/article. Unfortunately, in the gray bar at the top of the ad’s webpage it said “nature>article”, which could easily have confused some readers into thinking this was a standard, peer-reviewed Nature research article.

Lower down it said “Advertisement feature,” which kind of suggested it was an ad, but it wasn’t entirely clear and the text was gray. I bet many people would have just skipped right over that.

The ad/article was entitled, “Tissue regeneration by Muse cells after acute myocardial infarction.” Its source is something called the Translational Research Center for Medical Innovation (TRI) in Japan. The “authors” of the ad/article were listed as follows: Shinya Minatoguchi, Yoshihisa Yamada, Shingo Minatoguchi, Shingo Minatoguchi, Atsushi Mikami, Shohei Wakao, Yoshihiro Kushida & Mari Dezawa. Oddly one author was listed twice.

The ad claimed that Muse cells can aid in heart regeneration. I’m very skeptical of that and just more broadly of these cells.

Why the skepticism? What are Muse cells?

“Muse” stands for “multilineage-differentiating stress enduring”. For a long time a few researchers have claimed that Muse cells are adult pluripotent stem cells found in various animals and humans. To me it makes no sense that adults would have pluripotent stem cells in their tissues and the data on Muse cells hasn’t been convincing to many of us in the stem cell field.

Others have said that Muse cells don’t naturally exist, but can be created by the stress of the isolation of the cells that become Muse cells by the end of the process. Frankly, some claims about Muse cells remind me a bit too much of the debunked STAP cells and the mysterious VSELs.

Still, there are believers out there in the field and it’s formally possible I’m wrong about Muse cells not existing.

Getting back to the Nature situation, why would authors choose to publish (and republish) data as an advertisement? Some of the “figures” in the advertisement seemed to have been sourced from their previously published papers.

To me at the very least this now “retracted” ad/article doesn’t exactly boost confidence in Muse cells.

Why would Nature publish such an ad?

Earlier this week I asked Nature about it and here’s part of the initial response I got from a spokesperson:

“As you have noticed, it is an advertisement feature and clearly marked as such, including a disclaimer beneath to explain that it has not been subject to peer review. Paid pieces like this do not have a DOI and aren’t picked up by indexing databases.

The content was supplied by the customer, TRI and has not been subject to editorial review, nor is it endorsed by Nature Research.

Since you got in touch we have reviewed the presentation of this ad and think we could do more to ensure that it is clear to all our readers that this client-supplied content is not editorially reviewed or endorsed. We have made some changes to the layout of this page and will review our guidelines for how we work with this type of branded content.

You can read more about the commercial content that Nature Research publishes here:

https://partnerships.nature.com/commercial-content-at-nature-research/”

Again, as of today the ad/article is gone, which is a very good thing like making the best of a bad situation. The field of science must not blur the line between research articles and ads.

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