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Stem cell acid bath 'breakthrough' under investigation

24 February 2014
Appeared in BioNews 743

Research published in Nature that described a simple way to generate stem cells is now under investigation after blog posts called its findings into question.

Dr Haruko Obokata from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, Japan, and colleagues from Harvard Medical School, exposed blood cells from newborn mice to mild acid or physical pressure and generated pluripotent stem cells capable of developing into nearly all of a body's cell types. These were termed 'stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency' (STAP) cells, and the findings were published in two papers on 29 January (reported in BioNews 740).

Following publication, users of the PubPeer website questioned some of the images used, claiming that they seemed duplicated. In one image of a genetic analysis, it appears that one of the 'lanes' has been spliced in. Although spliced images are sometimes used, this is normally made clear and accompanied by an explanation. The bloggers also commented that pictures of two placentas from different experiments looked very similar.

Another blog reported that around ten other researchers have tried to replicate Obokata's result, without success.

It has also been suggested that another paper from Obokata et al, published in 2011 in Tissue Engineering, may have also used image manipulation. However, a Japanese blogger posted recently that 'the problems of some images of the research article could be the result of image compression noise'.

Dr Charles Vacanti, co-author of both papers, told Nature News that he is aware of the mix-up on some images in the 2011 paper, and has contacted the journal to request an erratum. He also stated that the mistake did not affect the results or any other component of the paper, and that it looks like an 'honest mistake'. Vacanti has said that he is happy to make the detailed protocol public.

The RIKEN Center has now launched an investigation and will make their findings public as soon as they are available; however it has confirmed that the investigation is only on the two articles published in 2013. They did not state what the focus of the investigation will be.

Acid-bath stem cell results called into question
New Scientist |  18 February 2014
Acid-bath stem-cell study under investigation
Nature News |  17 February 2014
High-Profile Stem Cell Papers Under Fire
ScienceInsider |  17 February 2014
Japanese Institute Opens Investigation Into Its Stem-Cell Breakthrough
Wall Street Journal |  17 February 2014
28 September 2015 - by Rebecca Carr 
Researchers investigating the purported creation of 'STAP' cells have confirmed that the pluripotent cells were in fact derived from embryonic stem (ES) cells...
7 July 2014 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Nature has retracted two papers published in January on the creation of so-called 'STAP' cells, after all co-authors agreed to the retractions....
7 July 2014 - by Dr Dusko Ilic 
Two papers published back to back in Nature took our breath away earlier this year, but the research community soon became sceptical and the published work was subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. How is it possible that something like this could happen?...
9 June 2014 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
The lead author of a controversial study describing a new type of stem cell - stimulus-triggered acquisition pluripotency (STAP) cells - has agreed to retract two research papers published in the journal Nature in January 2014...
12 May 2014 - by Purvi Shah 
Japan's RIKEN Center has announced that an appeal by stem-cell scientist, Dr Haruko Obokata, found guilty of research misconduct in relation to her claims of converting blood cells to stem cells using an 'acid bath', has been rejected...
3 February 2014 - by Dr Lanay Griessner 
Stem cells have been created from mouse blood cells using a simple and quick method described as 'remarkable' by experts...
3 February 2014 - by Dr Dusko Ilic 
This apparent witch's recipe is how a group of Japanese scientists have generated new mice: a remarkable finding that proves that true greatness lies in simplicity...
28 May 2013 - by Richard Fadok 
A group of anonymous scientists has voiced concerns about a controversial stem cell finding published online in Cell earlier this month, causing the journal to begin an investigation...
10 January 2010 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
Scientist and patient groups want more safeguards to prevent clinics in the UK from offering unproven stem cell treatments, according to the Guardian newspaper. The calls come as a Harley Street doctor - Robert Trossel - comes before the General Medical Council (GMC) accused of misconduct, the newspaper reports. According to the Guardian, the upcoming GMC hearing will consider allegations that he offered, and made false claims about, stem cell therapy. Dr Trossel is accused of ...
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