Easy Method For Making Stem Cells Was Too Good To Be True

Jul 2, 2014
Originally published on July 18, 2014 11:21 am

A prestigious scientific journal Wednesday took the unusual step of retracting some high-profile research that had generated international excitement about stem cell research.

The British scientific journal Nature retracted two papers published in January by scientists at the Riken research institute in Japan and at Harvard Medical School that claimed that they could create stem cells simply by dipping skin and blood cells into acid.

The claim raised the possibility of being able to use the cells to easily make any kind of cell in the body to treat many diseases and generated international media coverage, including some on Shots.

But other scientists almost immediately raised questions about the papers, and investigators eventually found that the research papers contained many errors. In April, Riken even concluded that Haruko Obokata, the main Japanese scientist, was guilty of scientific misconduct.

The scientists involved in the work, including Charles Vacanti at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, issued statements regretting the problems with the papers and agreeing that they should be retracted.

"I am deeply saddened by all that has transpired, and after thoughtful consideration of the errors presented in the Riken report and other concerns that have been raised, I have agreed to retract the papers," Vacanti wrote in a statement.

But Vacanti and Obokata said they still believed their techniques could work. In fact, Riken recently agreed to allow Obokata to participate in an experiment aimed at attempting to reproduce the original results.

For its part, the journal Nature said it was reviewing its policies to try to prevent future flawed papers from being published and published retractions of the two original papers as well as the editorial that accompanied them.

"The episode has further highlighted flaws in Nature's procedures and in the procedures of the institutions that publish with us," the journal said.

Brigham and Women's and Harvard both issued statements expressing regret about the case.

"We are fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research. Any concerns brought to our attention are thoroughly reviewed in accordance with institutional policies and applicable regulations," Harvard's statement said.

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Let's hear now about a scientific breakthrough that wasn't. Earlier this year we told you about a scientific claim that seemed like a big advance in stem cell research. Now that research has been discredited. Here's NPR's Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The original claims made headlines around the world. Researchers published two scientific papers claiming to show they could turn ordinary cells into stem cells simply by injuring them with acid. Here's how Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School described it at the time.

CHARLES VACANTI: We found that if we injured them almost to the point of dying but not quite to the point of dying, the cells would revert back to a stem cell state.

STEIN: That raised the thrilling possibility that it could be really easy to make stem cells which could lead to new treatments for lots of diseases. But almost immediately, other scientist began to question the claim. Paul Knoepfler of the University of California, Davis was one of the first skeptics.

PAUL KNOEPFLER: When I first read them, something really didn't feel right about those papers.

STEIN: Doubts quickly snowballed when no one else could do what the scientist claimed. And lots of errors and inconsistencies were found in the papers describing the experiments in the British journal Nature. The Riken research center in Japan, where a lot of the work was done, even concluded that the main scientist there, Haruko Obokata, was guilty of scientific misconduct. All that led the journal to formally retract the papers. Knoepfler's just glad it all got resolved so quickly.

KNOEPFLER: You know, it had the risk to really be harmful to the field and potentially to lead a lot of research resources down the wrong path.

STEIN: But Knoepfler noted that this is just the latest in a series of similar scandals that have rocked the field of stem cell research.

KNOEPFLER: If you have, you know, a number of scandals or controversies over the years, that can reduce public trust, and that's certainly not helpful.

STEIN: The Harvard and Japanese scientists issued statements saying they regret what happened. But Vacanti says he hasn't given up hope that his approach might still work and Haruko Obokata is even helping with a new experiment, trying to prove it does. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.