Science

Stem Cell "Game Changing" Paper Retracted

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Retraction
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It's apparently very easy to fool yourself when you're doing stem cell research. And not just yourself—the peer reviewers at leading scientific journals can be easily gulled as well. Just six months ago, Nature published two very high-profile papers by Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata in which she claimed that her team could turn normal mature cells into stem cells by simply bathing them in a mild acid. This would be a huge breakthrough, since stem cells might then be easily manufactured for therapeutic use in individual patients. Alas, the work appears to be too good to be true. The studies have been retracted, according to the Associated Press. From the AP:

On Wednesday, Nature released a statement from Obokata and the other authors of the papers that withdrew the papers. The scientists acknowledged "extensive" errors that meant "we are unable to say without a doubt" that the method works. They noted that studies of the simpler method are still going on by other researchers.

Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, another main author, issued a separate statement in which he said he believes the further studies will vindicate the method, which produced what the authors called STAP cells.

But another author, Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken center, said the errors in the papers meant "it has become increasingly difficult to call the STAP phenomenon even a promising hypothesis." In a statement issued by Riken, he said he was "deeply ashamed" of the problems in the papers.

Retractions of papers in major scientific journals like Nature are rare. They can come about because of fraud or the discovery of honest mistakes that undercut the conclusions of research. Publications like Nature routinely have experts review papers submitted by scientists to look for problems. But in an editorial released Wednesday, Nature concluded that its editors and reviewers "could not have detected the fatal faults in this work."

Glory (funding and tenure) tempts researchers to rush results into high-profile journals. Unfortunately, this incentive structure for research seems to have gone considerably awry. For example, in 2012 I reported in my column "Can Most Cancer Research Be Trusted?" that researchers could replicate the results of only six out of 53 landmark cancer research papers.

More researchers and journals should follow the replication system devised by the folks at the Open Science Framework project. Even better, major journals could insist that they will publish "game changing" papers only after the research has been replicated by an outside lab.

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  1. But don’t forget Ron, the peer review process in climatology is perfect and infallible.

  2. I thought that the science was settled?

  3. Stem cells are just a fad. Wait until the genome cures cancer!

  4. Retractions of papers in major scientific journals like Nature are rare.

    I think our definitions of rare differ. Journal retractions are rare the same way lethal shootings by officers of the peace are rare.

  5. ” Publications like Nature routinely have experts review papers submitted by scientists to look for problems. But in an editorial released Wednesday, Nature concluded that its editors and reviewers “could not have detected the fatal faults in this work.”

    Nature opined that Nature was not a fault for publishing bunk work. Good to know.

  6. Im curious, has stem cell research actually lead to any actual, real, usable treatment of any kind?

    1. It’s a gray area.

      Stem Cell research has been treating leukemia and blood diseases since the 60s.

      *Embryonic* stem cell therapy has seen one incomplete clinical trial. It was on spinal cord injuries and intended to restore *some* mobility. Read what you will from the fact that the sponsor dropped it halfway through because of ‘financial reasons’.

  7. I don’t care what the data say. What do the MODELS say?!

  8. Russ Roberts had some Replication Studies folks on Econtalk a couple of months back. There is tremendous need for more replication studies, but the work isn’t glorious, so it’s tough to recruit folks.

    1. Journals don’t want to publish replication studies … not sexy enough. They also don’t want to publish studies that don’t yield a positive result. The journals have become the equivalent of the National Enquirer.

  9. Props to them for having the courage to admit, “I fucked up,” rather than doubling down and going full frontal fraud (a la Stan Pons). That’s a really difficult thing to do and carries huge personal risk.

  10. Publications like Nature routinely have unpaid experts review papers submitted by scientists to look for problems.

    Well, you get what you pay for.

  11. Seems like many readers are concerning on the review thing of the study. I’m wondering the feasibility of it.

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