The Crack of Doom for STAP Cells (updated)

(March 12th, 2014) The latest news on the mysterious STAP cells come as a real bombshell. One of the co-authors requests the papers to be retracted. Leonid Schneider has the lowdown.

“I’m no longer sure that the articles are correct,” declared Teruhiko Wakayama this Monday at a press conference and asked for both of his Nature publications about the discovery of the so-called STAP cells to be retracted. Wakayama is co-author and senior author of the two Haruko Obokata publications, a Nature Feature paper, describing acid-triggered conversion of differentiated leukocytes into pluripotent stem cells (with Charles Vacanti as senior author) and a Nature Letter, describing their quasi-totipotency. The two back-to-back publications produced tremendous media frenzy when they appeared in Nature’s January 29th edition, only to face mounting accusations regarding their scientific quality just a few days later. This is what PubPeer users noticed so far:

- Images from Obokata’s PhD thesis and even the same manuscript were re-used in very different contexts. This was partially admitted by Wakayama and Vacanti and dismissed as an “honest mistake” of overworked Obokata.
- Some images appear deliberately manipulated, i.e. certain bands were digitally erased.
- A lot of data and quantifications were criticised by peers as problematic or incoherent at best.
- Large parts of the method section was plagiarised from unrelated publications and a PhD thesis from the University of Heidelberg.
- The raw sequence data were not available to the public for some time, despite Nature’s regulations. When they finally were supplied, they contradicted certain key claims in the original publication. Moreover, while original leukocytes used for STAP conversion were female, the resulting STAP stem cells miraculously proved to be male.

Still, all of this needn’t to be a problem, if anybody was able to reproduce the STAP results. Yet, despite continuous efforts all over the globe, nobody has even come close. With the growing frustration of the scientific community as well as the ongoing investigation of Obokata’s employer, the RIKEN Institute in Japan, Obokata was forced to break her silence and publish a detailed protocol for the generation of STAP cells. Certain important incongruities between the new protocol and the original Nature publication aside, neither Vacanti nor Wakayama are authors of the new protocol. In fact, Vacanti announced his own diverging protocol to be published soon, as he admitted to have been left out by his former student, Obokata. In fact, he now admitted to have learned of Wakayama’s call for retraction from the media and has “zero information” on what is happening.

As for Wakayama, who has now “lost faith in the paper” and is demanding an investigation of all the laboratory notebooks and data, one has to remember that he has, until very recently, fiercely defended his publications and the reliability of STAP data. He has claimed that he routinely used to create and apply totipotent STAP cells himself. Later on, he admitted that after leaving the RIKEN institute he could not reproduce the mysterious STAP protocol in his new lab at the University of Yamanashi. And just before his call for retraction, he specified that he had only succeeded to produce STAP cells in RIKEN just once, under the supervision of Obokata. Wakayama now says: "When conducting the experiment, I believed it was absolutely right." He now suggests to “withdraw the research paper once and, using correct data and correct pictures, to prove once again the paper is right”. Still, he indicates: “If it turns out to be wrong, we would need to make it clear why a thing like this happened." So what exactly was going on here? My guess is: Wakayama, as the most successful and experienced scientist of all involved, knows very well when it is time to abandon a sinking ship with its fraudulent captain and declare himself an innocent victim. If he didn’t suspect it before, he now certainly understands that these scientifically ridiculous STAP cells only ever existed in their authors’ minds.

The other senior author, Vacanti still sees “no reason why these papers should be retracted” and keeps mumbling about “honest mistakes”, as more and more blatant image manipulations are being uncovered, also in his other publications. He also seems to have forgotten about the previously announced human STAP cells and other allegedly routine STAP experiments in his lab. The lead author’s (Obokata’s) only reply to the mounting evidence of scientific misconduct against herself was to publish another irreproducible protocol. The three appear not to be talking to each other. According to Paul Knoepfler’s (stem cell biologist at UC Davis) sources, Vacanti’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Harvard apparently still fully supports the validity of Obokata’s and Vacanti’s data. RIKEN, however, might already be pushing for a retraction - ironically after boldly stating their firm belief in the solidity and unassailability of Obokata’s results and even before the beginning of their internal investigation. Indeed, as Paul Knoepfler suggested, this opposing attitude of RIKEN and Brigham & Women’s Hospital may result in a retraction of Wakayama’s STAP paper while Vacanti’s Nature paper would paradoxically remain, gathering citations and funding for Vacanti’s invisible STAP research.

And what about Nature, this flagship of scientific progress? Nature is quite notorious for their reluctance to retract papers, and consequently there are quite a number of faulty, irreproducible and long disproven Nature publications, still available for impact-factor promoting citations. Nature stated to be still investigating and have “no further comment at this stage”. I guess they are investigating how to avoid retracting two papers just several weeks after their publication. As Nature very well knows, time is a great healer, even for fraudulent research and researchers.

Picture: Fotolia/Dusan Kostic


On March 14th, RIKEN released in interim report on the investigation of the Obokata et al. articles. They found evidence for “inappropriate handling of data (…) but the circumstances were not judged to constitute research misconduct”.

Last Changes: 04.23.2014