The “landmark” stem cell paper may be retracted


STAP cells - Haruko Obokata

The “landmark” paper on STAP cells was retracted by nature. – Photo: Haruko Obokata

The landmark studies on “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP) published in Nature on January 30 this year, which first came under intense scrutiny and severe criticism very soon after their publication, have progressed to their next logical step. Prof. Teruhiko Wakayama from the University of Yamanashi and one of the authors of the studies has openly expressed his eagerness to withdraw the paper from the journal.

The papers by Haruko Obokata from Harvard Medical School and the first author of the papers and others took the world by storm by claiming to have reversed adult mice cells to their pluripotent state by using a very simple process — exposing the cells to mild acidic condition (pH 5.7) for 25 minutes at 37 degree C. Once reprogrammed, the pluripotent cells (like embryonic stem cells) were capable of becoming any of the adult cells.

In fact, the reprogrammed adult cells were shown to be far superior even to embryonic stem cells. While embryonic stem cells can only contribute to the formation of placental tissue, the STAP cells were found to be capable of contributing to both embryonic and placental tissue formation!

But the fizz died down soon after and the knives were out.

“It’s better to retract it once and submit it again after making sure that the data is all correct and won’t be criticized by anyone,” Prof. Wakayama had recently told a group of reporters. “An important part that affects the basis of the paper is not accurate, and I don’t even know what STAP cells are when I look at the photos (used in the paper) now.”

“I have lost faith in the paper. Overall there are now just too many uncertainties about it [the paper],” Prof. Wakayama was quoted as saying in Nature News Blog .

Withdrawal of a paper (retraction) can be done when all the authors of the paper agree to it.

“We are taking the proposal [of retracting the paper] seriously,” RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology, Kobe, was quoted as saying in The Japanese Times on Tuesday (March 11). Haruko Obokata, the first author of the papers, is from RIKEN.

A new charge

Now, a new charge has been levelled against the authors. A few images published in the paper appear very similar to the ones used in the doctoral thesis of Dr. Obokata. One website (, for instance, has provided evidence of wrongdoing. This is a serious charge as no excuse in terms of inadvertent use or sloppiness can be attributed to the authors if the images published in the paper and the doctoral thesis are found to be one and the same.

In the beginning, only duplication of images was reported. It was dismissed as just an “honest mistake” that led to a “mix up of some panels,” by Charles Vacanti, a co-author and an anaesthesiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston; Prof. Wakayama felt it was a “case of simple confusion.”

Both Nature and RIKEN are investigating the charges. The Riken research institute had indicated on February 14 that it had begun investigating the charges of image duplication

The stapcell.blogspot website has revealed several other irregularities including plagiarism of a large chunk of text from a 2005 paper published in the journal In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology – Animal. Incidentally, the plagiarised part also appears in the patent filed by Dr. Obokata and others. The plagiarised text is in the methods part of the paper, which follows the research work and references.

It may be recalled that scientists were not able to replicate the results in their labs. Even Prof. Wakayama was unable to do so despite initial success in producing the results prior to publishing the paper.

During the first week of March, Dr. Obokata and others had kept their promise and made available the details of how to generate the STAP cells.

Published in The Hindu on march 13, 2014