– Gaston Jean-Louis ’16

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

A few weeks ago, the journal Nature published the retraction of two papers originally published in January in which researchers from Japan’s RIKEN Institute claimed to have discovered a novel method to induce pluripotency in committed cells.  The process, known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), was touted by researchers as a major development in the field of stem cell research due to its perceived potential to facilitate the development of pluripotent stem cells by avoiding the complex genetic manipulation required to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

But the papers quickly became mired in controversy, as their conclusions were found to be difficult to replicate. The research team, led by RIKEN’s Haruko Obokata, originally claimed that pluripotent stem cells—widely seen as a promising future source of medical advances for their ability to differentiate into almost any cell type in the body—were successfully isolated from mature, differentiated cells that were subjected to environmental stress.  Specifically, STAP was said to have reprogrammed somatic cells by exposing them to a low-pH (acidic) environment.  Upon reports that these results were not reproducible, the RIKEN Institute launched an investigation into the work of Obokata et al. and found several errors and instances of misconduct, including improperly labeled figures and plagiarism in some parts of the methods description.

In their official retraction, the authors noted several additional errors in figures from both papers that were not uncovered in the RIKEN investigation.  The authors wrote in part, “[g]iven the extensive nature of the errors currently found, we consider it appropriate to retract both papers.”

For its part, Nature said in an editorial that it “could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers” before publication, but the journal expressed a commitment to increased rigor in evaluating the claims of research papers.  The publication will keep the now retracted papers on its website so as not to “rewrite history.”

As the Nature editorial noted, the controversy surrounding the Obokata et al. papers should serve as a reminder to the research community of the importance of carefully handling data and maintaining accurate records.  The STAP retractions demonstrate that researchers must adhere to rigorous standards in documenting their work to ensure the significance and validity of scientific research.

The original papers can be read in the Nature archive: Article and Letter.
Additional Sources:

(2014).  STAP retracted.  Nature 511, 5-6.