Higher apparent stem cell paper retraction rates versus cancer papers

The fast-moving stem cell field has enjoyed remarkable progress in the past 10 years despite some issues such as instances of stem cell paper retraction. This “modern” stem cell era that includes induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC) has been striking for progress despite some challenges such as issues with publications.cancer stem retractions

As a maturing field it is important to view our future through the realistic lens of our past and present, which means discussing both the good and the unpleasant issues. We also have to keep things in perspective relative to other fields of science and larger trends.

For instance, how do the publication problems that the stem cell field grapples with at times such as retractions compare to those in the cancer field?

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Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) launches new website with STAP claims


Image courtesy of Dr. Bob Geller from Nikkan Gendai (on sale April 1, official date April 2)

Even as the book of Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) had been fading in popularity on Amazon Japan (update: it is now increasing again), there is some other news with her as she has launched a new website.

The website, STAP Hope Page, seems to often not work now, but you can also see it here via Wayback Machine.

Hat tip to several readers and people on Twitter including Buvery and Bob Geller.

JIJI Press has confirmed that the site is real as some had speculated it might be a parody site. My impression just from reading it earlier today even before I knew about JIJI’s findings was that it felt real. I’m not sure why the site is now down.

JIJI has an interesting quote:

“On the site, Obokata, 32, says she hopes to help other scientists succeed in creating STAP cells.
According to her representative, lawyer Hideo Miki, Obokata sent him an email informing him of the establishment of the site a few days ago. In the message, she insisted that parts of the original STAP cell experiments she undertook were successful.”

The inclusion of the word “Hope” seems appropriate as I think she must be hoping that she still can redeem STAP even if only indirectly.

On the website are a number of things including more on her side of the STAP story (still hinting it seems at blaming Teru Wakayama) and even a STAP protocol. This protocol feels reminiscent of when Vacanti posted a new STAP protocol on the Brigham and Women’s website may 18 months or so back when no one else seemed to get it to work.

The Obokata website includes an apology for STAP. There is also some text on the announcement page related to her thesis:

“My Ph.D thesis that was reintroduced to Waseda University is still under advisement with relevant people about lawsuits or readmission to other universities.

While it is not clear what decision will be reached, it has been decided that the public opening of my Ph.D thesis is to be postponed for this reason.

I apologize in advance for this.

March 25, 2016
Haruko Obokata”

Her statement to end her homepage is this:

“I am unable to further continue my own STAP research. All I can do is to leave my recipe to create STAP cells here. My fervent hope is that someone will open the next door to the secrets of life. STAP phenomenon may be the key to the door. I believe that STAP phenomenon will prove to be a great contribution to humanity in the future.”

It seems at this point that Obokata and Vacanti both, despite having gone their separate ways, still to some extent believe in STAP based on what they’ve written or has been quoted from them recently.

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.

Obokata questioned by police over STAP cell fiasco

Haruko Obokata

Obokata presenting STAP in happier time

Haruko Obokata was reportedly questioned by police in Japan today.

The questioning relates to the STAP cell scandal that led to the retraction of two Nature papers.

As first author of the papers, Obokata and other authors had reported that they could make IPSC-like cells simply via acid or other stress treatment. However, it is now widely believed that the supposed STAP cells were in actuality ES cells (or ES cells mixed with other cell types), and there has been some question over whether the ES cells were technically stolen by someone. Japan times reports:

“She was questioned in response to a complaint filed by another former Riken researcher in January last year, although Riken itself has not reported any crime, the police said…The complainant claimed someone had stolen embryonic stem cells from the laboratory in Kobe in or after April 2011, when Obokata was still employed by Riken.”

Obokata has been in the news recently because she just published a book telling her side of STAP and shifting the blame onto others with claims such as that she was framed. It’s unclear if the police would continue with this potential case, although it sounds like there is at least some circumstantial evidence that something happened:

“A container labeled “ES cells” was found in Obokata’s laboratory during the investigation, but Obokata denied mixing them, intentionally or unintentionally, with the specimens used in her research.”

I asked a scientist in Japan about this development and they had this to say:

“I suppose by publishing her book and profiting massively from  research misconduct she forced the cops’ hand a bit. I still doubt they’ll prosecute, but at least they have to go through the motions of investigating…”

I’ve been critical of the whole STAP affair in the past, but even so the idea of scientists being questioned by police is unsettling.

Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) book is a #1 best seller

Obokata book AmazonHaruko Obokata wrote a book about the STAP cell scandal telling it from her perspective.

Fom all accounts I’ve seen, she has sought in her writings to shift the blame away from herself. She even claimed she was framed by other scientists. To say I’m skeptical would be an understatement.

Will this book have any impact? Many scientists thought it would make a splash and then fade away.

Not so, at least so far.

At present Obokata’s book is the #1 best-selling book on all of Amazon Japan, which is a huge deal. A hat tip to Dr. Robert Geller for the heads up on this.

Clearly in Japan a very large number of people are buying this book, which both raises the possibility that it could be influential on public opinion there and that she could profit handsomely from its sales. Her publisher apparently has given her a $50,000 USD equivalent advance, but if the book sells beyond expectations she could get even more.

Might it be translated into English?

Do people believe the claims in the book? The reviews on Amazon Japan are very mixed with many one-star reviews with harsh words and overall not a great rating, but there are five-star reviews too.