STAP the madness: Japanese stem cell researchers call for retraction of acid bath-based technique

The shockingly simple proposed method for pluripotent transition from somatic cells. From Obokata et al, Nature 2014.

The shockingly simple proposed method for pluripotent transition from somatic cells. From Obokata et al, Nature 2014.

Former and current researchers out of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan call for the retraction of a pair of Nature papers by  (here and here; full citations below) published earlier this year out of the same institute describing a simple and potentially powerful new method for producing stem cells. The original papers described the sudden transition from differentiated cells into cells displaying stemness by inducing stress in a sightly acidic bath composed simply of HBSS (a simple salt solution) titrated to pH 5.7 for only 25 minutes. They call this method STAP, for stimulis-triggered aquisition of pluripotency. This is a shockingly simple method that, if supported, could change the way stem cell research is conducted. Therein lies the problem – researchers listed as authors on the paper publicly announced their disapproval of some of the methods and data contained in the papers, stirring an international call for reassessment of this supposed discovery.

Haruko Obokata on Jan. 28.  Image: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Haruko Obokata on Jan. 28. Image: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Teruhiko Wakayama, one of the co-authors on the paper, says “I have lost faith in the paper. Overall there are now just too many uncertainties about it. I think we have to wait for some confirmation… To check the legitimacy of the paper, we should retract it, prepare proper data and images, and then use those to demonstrate, with confidence, that the paper is correct.” The RIKEN institute says they are currently investigating potential academic misconduct.

One of the most redeeming aspects of this controversy, in my opinion, is the level of self-checking we are seeing from the science community at large; my favorite example is the Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell blog. The blog is written by Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor at the UC Davis Medical School, who is following the story by aggregating data from other labs (including his own) which are trying to reproduce the data published in the original papers. This is exactly the idea behind the peer-reviewed nature of science; it isn’t just about the quality of the reported literature and if the words make sense… the science has to work. While no group has had success yet, time will tell what is in store for this potentially paradigm-shifting method.

Read more excellent coverage at Nature News Blog and The Wall Street Journal.

References

  1. Obokata, H. et al. Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency. Nature 505, 641–7 (2014).
  2.  Obokata, H. et al. Bidirectional developmental potential in reprogrammed cells with acquired pluripotency. Nature 505, 676–680 (2014).
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Jordan Yaron

PhD Candidate at ASU Biodesign Institute
Jordan is the founding contributor of The Biology Blog. He has a passion for inflammation, bioimaging and science communication.
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