Finally, Vacanti’s side of STAP cell implosion

Obokata Vacanti

Vacanti and Obokata

A great new piece in The New Yorker by Dana Goodyear, The Stress Test, gives us a window into Charles Vacanti’s side of the STAP cell mess and includes recent quotes from him.

It’s a long, fascinating look inside of STAP, the tangled and ultimately tragic scientific implosion that created and then brought down two Nature papers and some careers.

The most notable part of the article is that the stem cell community finally hears from Vacanti, postdoc mentor of lead author Haruko Obokata. We also gain more insight into the working relationship between Vacanti and Obokata, which as the piece tells it became increasingly distant after the STAP papers were published. For instance, even before publication but after Obokata’s return to RIKEN from Vacanti’s lab, her continuing work on STAP, and teaming up with Sasai:

“Obokata’s data were closely guarded—other lab members knew only that she was working on a radical new way to make stem cells. Even Vacanti was excluded from the day-to-day progress. He wrote to Obokata seeking updates, and got responses from Sasai. “Haruko has been so busy over the past two months and, from what I see, got exhausted time to time,” he wrote. “I hope that you may understand such a situation and kindly help her concentrate.” When Obokata did find time to respond to Vacanti, she signed her notes, “With a lot of love,” and reassured him that she just wanted to see him smile.”

and then later after STAP broke and there was basking to do in the positive media glow initially:

“But, by the time the news cycle finished, Vacanti’s fears had been realized. He had vanished from Obokata’s narrative. Nature’s news site carried a recording of her talking about how she had come up with STAP. Like Archimedes, she described her eureka moment as having taken place in the bathtub, when she started to wonder if mammalian cells responded to stress by producing stem cells. “I tried everything I could think of,” she says. “Squeezing cells through a pipette, starving cells, and so on.” Martin Vacanti called his brother. “Chuck, have you listened to her description of the eureka moment?” he said. Chuck hadn’t. “She gave the same description I give about the sporelike cells,” Martin said. She was using his eureka moment.”

STAP stem cells

STAP spheres nice and green?

The New Yorker piece starts the STAP story as an idea of Vacanti’s from years ago related to his notion of spore stem cells. This was mentioned in my early interview with Vacanti right after the STAP papers were published.

Obokata arrived on the scene in his lab and ran with the idea. Ultimately it seems from Goodyear’s piece that Vacanti felt in the end that Obokata ran away with the idea to some extent.

When the whole thing started unraveling, Goodyear reports that Vacanti contacted Obokata to ask what the real deal was:

“As the questions mounted, Vacanti says, he called Obokata and said, “Haruko, I have to know, because people are losing their careers on this. Is any of this data fabricated?” She assured him that everything was legitimate. He recalls that she said, “If I was going to fake this, I wouldn’t have spent hours and hours collecting data.” Vacanti thought that she was too smart to cheat so brazenly, and certainly too smart to get caught.”

stap cellsIt’s hard to know exactly how to take this passage as it is not exactly a reassuring account of what happened. Too smart to get caught? That’s a dangerous mentality.

Overall the narrative in this article paints Vacanti as a perhaps over exuberant, true believer in STAP (even to this day perhaps), and the quotes seem to place most of the responsibility for STAP related to experimental issues back in Japan either with Obokata or if she is to be believed (e.g. in her new book) with Teru Wakayama.

What’s next for Vacanti?

It seems that his lab may soon close:

“At the end of July, Vacanti invited me to Boston. Because of the embarrassment around STAP, he had taken a sabbatical from his chairmanship, and would soon retire from his position. His lab would eventually run out of money, and then close. But his faith in the basic principles of STAP was unshakable. “I will go to my grave still being absolutely certain that it’s correct,” he said.”

I find it striking that Vacanti and his protegé Koji Kojima, another STAP author, were still working on STAP-related experiments as of the writing of Goodyear’s article. Amazing.

Where does this leave STAP?

There are still a number of open questions, but overall it feels closer to closure.

Anyone can make mistakes. Falling in love with a hypothesis is not unheard of. Hyping a story happens. Trusting someone and finding that trust misplaced.

But STAP went beyond more commonplace glitches in the scientific process. It seems to have been a perfect storm case of several big things all on one project going terribly wrong including evidence in RIKEN’s view of misconduct by Obokata.

The tragedy of Dr. Sasai’s suicide after STAP should also highlight the seriousness of these kinds of situations and the fact that scientists are people too with feelings. Many other scientists were hurt by the STAP situation including some with no substantive link to it.

As for the science side of things, there may be a link between stress and cellular plasticity, but it’s not going to be what was claimed as STAP.

Today and into the future, STAP serves mainly as a cautionary tale of the types of problems to try one’s best to avoid as a scientist.

Overall responsibility for STAP, even if in very different ways, resides both in the U.S. and Japan. Goodyear’s article has made this reality clearer.

Scientists and suicide

suicide symbolsWhy do some scientists kill themselves and can such suicides be prevented?

Clearly it can be hard or even impossible to tell from the outside what things may be like on the inside for anybody whether they are a scientist or not.

Last year the world of science, and in particular the stem cell and developmental biology fields, were stunned when noted RIKEN scientist Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide. At least in part that death was linked to the STAP cell fiasco.

More recently the CEO of Cambrian Genomics, Austen Heinz, died of suicide as well some time in the last two months. There are no concrete details on this death and no public indications of a reason for the suicide. An obituary can be read here.

I interviewed Austen and posted the discussion on this blog just a few months back. The focus was on Cambrian and his enthusiasm for human genetic modification. I viewed Austen as a very confident scientist working on cutting edge research who was unafraid to push the boundaries to the extreme. I was surprised and very sad to learn that he had taken his life.

Many scientists over the centuries have committed suicide (see partial list here on Wikipedia).

A 1990 study of scientists who committed suicide (why only male?) concluded that they faced intense stress and for some it was too much leading to the suicide. Coverage of that study in The Scientist noted a few key reasons thought to be linked to scientist suicide:

“The leading contributing factors were: isolation, 50 percent; physical illness, 47 percent; politics as both a precipitating and background factor, 42 percent; and depression (sometimes hereditary), 31 percent. The percentages add up to more than 100 because most suicides had more than one cause.”

Minor contributing factors were defined as the following:

“Minor precipitating factors were: death of a close relative, 17 percent; overwork, 14 percent; business or legal problems, especially common among inventors, 11 percent; grant problems, 8 percent; problems with the administration or boss, 3 percent.”

What do you think are the most important factors?

Of course women scientists commit suicide too and at one point it seemed that women chemists were far more likely than their male colleagues to kill themselves.

Scientists of any gender or age can find themselves in a pressure cooker of stress. Could the perception that a higher proportion of scientists are shy have any role or is scientist shyness a myth? For some if there is a perception of being outside the stodgy norm for almost any reason that stress can be strongly amplified. Some scientists who committed suicide in the past had faced discrimination of various kinds such as for race or sexual orientation. The amazingly gifted 20th century scientist Alan Turing may have committed suicide after being persecuted for a relationship with another man.

Can anything be done to make a positive difference?

There’s not a whole lot of compassion in the community of science for scientists as actual people. I’m not sure if there’s a way to change that. It would be helpful if there were less stigma for scientists who have mental health issues. Science needs more resources available to scientists who may feel in a particularly hopeless situation at a certain time with nowhere to turn.

More research on suicide by scientists is needed as well. Remarkably there are almost no scientific articles on suicide by scientists. For instance, see this PubMed search result, which yielded just 4 articles out of the >23,000 with the title word “suicide”. So we are pretty much in the dark in terms of scientist suicides, trends, causes, and such. It seems to be one of those taboo topics that in reality needs more open and thoughtful discussion.

If you are feeling possibly suicidal, please look for help. For instance, you can contact the National Suicide Hotline in the US at 1 (800) 273-8255, toll-free, 24/7, in both English and Spanish.

Reflecting on Sasai tragedy, STAP, and today’s flawed world of science

Today has been a dark day of mourning for science following the death by suicide of Dr. Yoshiki Sasai. I did not know Dr. Sasai personally, but was very impressed with his work. His suicide leaves me feeling very sad and it seems like an appropriate time for reflection.

It’s not clear why he took his own life, but it is reasonable to surmise that aspects of the STAP cell mess had a prominent role.

After the STAP paper situation went wild in the media in Japan and became a political hot potato there, it seemed that Sasai was being scapegoated. Even though others were relatively far more responsible for the STAP troubles than he seemed to be, he shouldered more of the burden. Some of that burden he probably took on himself because of his love for the RIKEN CDB.

Sasai should be remembered for his entire career’s exceptional work and not for STAP. If he made missteps on STAP, my impression was that it was at least in part due to being too trusting and then wanting to go after the truly big, transformative discovery that STAP seemed to be. As to the latter, in today’s world of science everybody is supposed to be going after transformative discoveries, right? Otherwise you won’t be funded. It’s not an excuse for the STAP travails, but a relevant reality faced by all scientists.

How much do you trust and how fast do you go with projects and papers? How much risk do you take?

While STAP was supposed to be all about cells under various kinds of intense pressure and stress subsequently reacting by turning into stem cells, perhaps the real and now tragic story of STAP is instead all about the reactions of scientists under painfully intense pressure and stress. That’s in a way a mirror of the larger flawed, acid bath world of science today that we all share. In a sense we are all in that same boat in one way or another. What can we do to make the situation better?