A tale of two stem cell retractions: stark contrast between Macchiarini & Egli

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.

Macchiarini retraction

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. Continue reading

STAP cells (stap細胞) are real deal says new Vacanti patent declaration

STAP is back?vacanti-stap-figure-2017

Really?

No, I don’t believe so, but there’s an interesting development and twist on the STAP cell front.

Just a few days ago on January 4, 2017 Dr. Charles Vacanti, the originator of the STAP cells concept, submitted a declaration to the USPTO affirming the belief that STAP cells are real and requesting that the patent office allow the rejected STAP patent application to be reconsidered.

I find a number of aspects of this development notable:

  • The declaration says they have generated new data supporting STAP, but the two figures shown are in my opinion unconvincing. More specifically, just showing some floating spheres and an image of a single cell (not even stained for a marker) doesn’t really prove anything. You can see a snapshot of Figure 1 above. Note that in May 2016 an Obokata-associated website posted some supposed STAP validation data as well, but in my view it too wasn’t at all convincing.
  • qPCR results on induced expression of pluripotency genes are mentioned, but I didn’t see that actual data in the document or other related documents so as far as I can tell it can’t be evaluated at this point. Update: I’m still searching to see if I can find a patent document that shows the new qPCR and it may be in there somewhere. Stay tuned. BTW, you can look at the patent documents directly yourself at this USPTO website. Plug in patent application #14/397,080 and click on the tab at the top that reads “Image File Wrapper”. I’m not a patent expert so there may be other useful tabs at the top as well where for instance the qPCR data could be found or other information.
  • The declaration expresses concern with how Nature handled the STAP cell situation with the retractions, indicating that in the view of some of the authors there should have been an indication that the authors believed the concept was real.
  • Why do some of the STAP authors believe in it still but many others in the stem cell field don’t? Apparently, according to the declaration, the other labs who tried the STAP method just didn’t use the proper technique. I have doubts about that explanation. For instance, Vacanti’s own Harvard/B&W’s colleague George Daley and other top stem cell scientists published two BCA pieces in Nature refuting the existence of STAP. Reportedly they even did some of this work in Vacanti’s own lab with someone who was an author on the STAP papers.
  • The STAP cell patent application has been transferred to a private company called Vcell Therapeutics, Inc., which seems somewhat obscure. A Japanese blog has dug into this situation and mentions a J. Kelly Ganjei, a name I’m not familiar with, as a leader of Vcell. There’s even some speculation that Vcell may be short for “Vacanti cell”, but I don’t know about that. Given the sound of the company’s name I can’t help but think of VSELs, another controversial kind of stem cell, when reading the word “Vcell”.

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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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