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Institute may retract stem cell acid bath paper

17 March 2014
Appeared in BioNews 746

The Japanese research centre responsible for two stem cell experiments published in January (see BioNews 740) has admitted that it may have to retract the papers, as the investigation into research misconduct in relation to the two articles continues.

The results, which were published in the journal Nature, were enthusiastically received by experts and the media, with the Independent describing the new technique as a 'miracle cure'. However, numerous allegations were raised on online forums and science blogs regarding the accuracy of the findings, causing the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology, to launch an investigation.

'It is extremely regrettable that significant discrepancies have been found to have been generated in the process of preparing the Nature articles for publication', said Professor Ryoji Noyori, president of RIKEN. 'It may become necessary to demand the withdrawal of the articles'.

Most of the paper's authors are affiliated with either the RIKEN Centre or Harvard Medical School in the USA. In the experiments blood cells from newborn mice were subjected to mild acid or physical pressure, with the surprising result that these cells had the potential to form stem cells within just half an hour.

The interim report published by RIKEN's investigating committee concluded that 'there had been inappropriate handling of data […] but the circumstances were not judged to constitute research misconduct' in relation to two specific points. The committee will deliberate on a further four points before a final conclusion is reached.

The investigation is focusing on claims that various images and figures in the report were either irrelevant, or inappropriately modified to present the data more favourably.

Additionally, the committee are considering allegations that a part of the 'methods' section was plagiarised from another paper, and that the description of the procedure given does not accurately describe the procedure used to generate stem cells.

Professor Teruhiko Wakayama, one of the researchers involved with the experiments, has also expressed his wish for the papers to be retracted. 'When conducting the experiment, I believed it was absolutely right', he said, speaking to Japanese TV (as reported by BBC News). 'But now that many mistakes have emerged, I think it is best to withdraw the research paper'.

However, speaking to The Independent, Professor Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, defended the research.

'I continue to feel that the findings presented in these papers are too significant to disregard based on relatively minor errors or external pressures', he said. 'In the absence of compelling evidence that the data presented is incorrect, I do not believe that the manuscripts should be retracted'.

The RIKEN committee has not yet said when its final report will be released.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Interim report on the investigation of the Obokata et al. articles
RIKEN |  14 March 2014
Japan stem cell researchers' errors not intentional, institute says
Los Angeles Times |  14 March 2014
RIKEN: No Misconduct Yet Found in Its Acid-Bath Stem Cell Investigation
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News |  14 March 2014
Stem cell 'breakthrough data inappropriately handled'
BBC News |  14 March 2014
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