Do You Believe in STAP Stem Cells? One Final Poll in 2014

It’s been many months since I last asked, so for one last time in 2014, here’s a poll on your views of STAP stem cells.

What do you think? You can vote once per day. I am going to follow up with a couple different STAP-related polls this week, but this is the last one of 2014 on the actual STAP cells.

STAP Voted as the Stem Cell Story of the Year for 2014

Stem Cell Story of 2014When I asked the readers of this blog what they felt was the biggest stem cell story of 2014 in a poll, they overwhelmingly picked the STAP cell scandal.

For background on STAP you can toggle through the many STAP cell pieces on this blog here, see a STAP timeline, and a STAP image gallery.

Basically, STAP was a bogus scientific claim about a supposedly simple reprogramming method to make powerful stem cells induced by cellular stress.

Despite many flaws in this STAP research and the fact that it seemed way too good to be true, STAP was published in two Nature papers that came out toward the end of January 2014 that are now retracted.

The STAP mess was the product of many things going wrong, almost a perfect storm of research missteps and some have said even misconduct as well as arguably puzzling editorial decision making at one of the most prestigious journals in the world, Nature. Discussion of STAP pointed to more specific, serious problems. Image and data reuse. Plagiarism. Hype. Rush to publish. Unhealthy competition. Gift authorship. And more.

At some point we need to move on from STAP and thankfully that is happening, but there is still more to discuss before we can really fully move on and focus more squarely on the positive stuff. For example, a few puzzles remain about STAP such as where the supposed STAP cells really came from and also how Nature ended up publishing the STAP work when the scientific reviewers that Nature itself enlisted to review the submitted manuscripts skewered them.

The younger generations of scientists in the stem cell field are also watching how the field handles STAP and other events that invoke similar problems too. What lessons will they and the public take home from all of this? There are so many very real, wonderfully positive developments ongoing in the stem cell and regenerative medicine fields that I would rather be discussing instead of STAP, but we have to be careful. The risk that STAP-like events pose to our field comes in the form of a possible harmful narrative of the stem cell field fundamentally losing the public trust.

New Message from Wakayama on STAP retraction & origin of STAP-SC

I have been corresponding now and then with Dr. Teru Wakayama about the ongoing STAP situation. He asked me to pass along the following message from him for clarification on the STAP Nature paper retraction and the origin of the STAP stem cells (STAP-SC).

I would like to take this opportunity to explain the reason for certain differences between the retraction statement in the published paper version of Nature Magazine and the online version of the STAP paper retraction, specifically related to reason No. (5) which was slightly different between the two.

Last month, I reported to the media about the apparent strain difference between mice used in our lab and the STAP cells. Our mouse line uniformly carries identical cag-gfp insertions in chromosome 18, however, STAP-SC appeared to have a different GFP insertion site in chromosome 15. After learning this, I asked for a further analysis to obtain more hints as to the original mouse strain corresponding to STAP-SC. My collaborator found that perhaps the GFP insertion site of STAP-SC was in fact not chromosome 15. However, importantly, the GFP insertion site is absolutely different between our mouse line and STAP-SC. We know this to be the case because we demonstrated that one primer (part of chromosome 18 and cag) only gave a PCR band in our mouse line, but not in the STAP-SC. Thus, the retraction reason of no. (5) is absolutely right. Meanwhile, we are now trying to find the true insertion site of GFP in STAP-SC. Unfortunately, for the paper version of Nature, I could not clarify this point because the deadline had passed. Only the online version could be corrected.

We apologize for any confusion, but in the best interests of science and complete transparency, we wish all of this information to be freely available.

Teru Wakayama

Notes from Paul: I did some minor editing of this text for clarity.

Below is the online retraction statement reason no. (5):

“(5) In the Article, one group of STAP stem cells (STAP-SCs) was reported as being derived from STAP cells induced from spleens of F1 hybrids from the cross of mouse lines carrying identical cag-gfp insertions in chromosome 18 in the background of 129/Sv and B6, respectively, and that they were maintained in the Wakayama laboratory. However, further analysis of the eight STAP-SC lines indicates that, while sharing the same 129×B6 F1 genetic background, they have a different GFP insertion site. Furthermore, while the mice used for STAP cell induction are homozygous for the GFP transgene, the STAP-SCs are heterozygous. The GFP transgene insertion site matches that of the mice and ES cells kept in the Wakayama laboratory. Thus, there are inexplicable discrepancies in genetic background and transgene insertion sites between the donor mice and the reported STAP-SCs.”

Editorial: Past Time for Nature to Retract STAP Cell Papers & Open Up On Review Problems

nature's misstapTwo stem cell papers riddled with errors, with figures that resulted from potential misconduct, with plagiarism, and with other serious problems remain uncorrected and unretracted in the prestigious journal Nature.

It is well past time for the journal to editorially retract them.

It was about four months ago that Nature published the two astonishing STAP papers reporting the supposed creation of super-powerful stem cells (known variously as STAP cells or STAP stem cells) via simple methods such as weak acid treatment.

Since their publication, it’s been all down hill for these papers.

As soon as they came out I posted a review raising key questions about them related to puzzling issues.

Within a week I was the first scientist to publicly raised serious doubts about the papers. I gave the top 5 reasons to doubt the papers.

Within a few more weeks there were signs that the STAP papers were seriously compromised and one senior author, Teru Wakayama, himself called for their retraction.

To this day, nobody has gotten the STAP method to work and perhaps even more importantly, it is clear that both papers are irredeemable due to many serious and unfixable problems.

And yet they still remain uncorrected and unretracted in Nature.

Why?

Could the journal be holding out some hope that someone somewhere will get the STAP method to work? If so, the journal leadership should realize that it’s too late for that to save the papers.

Is the journal going through some slow process of investigation that it wants to finish before retracting the papers? I don’t know, but time is ticking away and there is no apparent reason for further delay.

Are they just hoping that as months go by fewer people will care about STAP?

Whatever the reason, it is well past time for Nature to editorially retract these tainted papers. There is nothing more to be learned that could save the papers and every day that passes with them still in the Nature portfolio is a shame.

Making matters worse, there is no apparent sign that Nature is taking the STAP problem to heart as it pertains to its own role in the debacle and the flaws in its own manuscript review process. For example, Nature recently published an editorial harshly criticizing Japan for its science related scandals and in that piece Nature mentioned the STAP scandal as an example, but it did not mention a role for Nature itself in the STAP mess that might need discussion and action. And of course the STAP papers included America’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, not just Japan.

It’s time for Nature to get real on STAP.

Retract the STAP papers and publicly discuss what went wrong.

The journal of course cannot and should not be directly blamed for any potential author misconduct, but clearly Nature has some major responsibility for the train wreck that is STAP.

You can only get so much mileage out of blaming others outside the journal as much as that blame may be appropriate.

Time for action and openness by Nature. That’s the only way for the journal to move on in a positive way.