The news this week that a Japanese researcher who claimed to have discovered a much simpler way to create stem cells has been found guilty of misconduct has sent a shock wave through the international stem cell community.
More importantly, it has everyone wondering: does this revolutionary new method of making stem cells work?
In January, NewsDesk reported on the excitement generated by reports that researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, working with a team in the Boston, had transformed blood cells from newborn mice into pluripotent cells called STAP cells.
The STAP (stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency) process stresses the cells by exposing them to trauma, low oxygen levels or mildly acidic solutions so that they revert to an embryonic-stem-cell-like state. Lead author Dr. Haruko Obokata (pictured at right) of the RIKEN Center said work was already underway to replicate the technique with human cells.
Until now there have only been two basic ways of making stem cells: harvesting them from embryos (embryonic stem cells), or genetically reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells). To put the impact of Dr. Obokata’s discovery in context, the 2006 discovery of induced pluripotent cells earned her countryman Dr. Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012.
However, on Tuesday, a RIKEN-led committee investigating six problems with the STAP findings, which were published in the high-prestige journal Nature, ruled that in two instances Dr. Obokata had intentionally manipulated data. Both dealt with images of the cells used to support the findings.
CTV carried an Associated Press report in which RIKEN Institute President Dr. Ryoji Noyori said that, after allowing for an appeal, “disciplinary action would be taken, including calling for retraction of the suspect paper.” Nature, meanwhile, is conducting its own investigation.
For her part, Dr. Obokata has vigorously denied doing anything wrong and is appealing the decision, calling it “a misunderstanding.”
The fracas follows concerns over the use of several duplicated images in the findings as well as reports that scientists working in other labs have been unable to reproduce the same results by using the STAP process. The latter is not entirely surprising: it can take time to get a new process exactly right — especially one that is a revolutionary as what Dr. Obokata’s team came up with.
In fact, the RIKEN investigators haven’t said if STAP is scientifically valid. Nature News reported that the committee “repeatedly fended off questions about whether the technology works and, thus, whether STAP cells actually exist,” quoting one investigator as saying, “That is beyond the scope of our investigation.”
Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research and Senior Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto urges caution before passing judgment.
“The team in RIKEN is still continuing to believe in the basic finding and will surely be working to revalidate the findings,” Dr. Rossant wrote to NewsDesk in an email. “We await new reports from the lab in Japan and, critically, reports from other labs worldwide as to whether this finding can be readily and robustly replicated.”
So, while the storm around the misrepresented data rages, the scientific world waits to see if STAP stands up to the test of time.