Cardiac Stem Cells

Integrity of acid-bath stem cell paper questioned — possible retraction

Oh folks. I am sorry about this. Six weeks ago, I published this guest post from Michael Zhang, an MD-PhD candidate at the University of Louisville, on what I felt were two pioneering papers in biology. Michael did a great job reviewing and explaining the papers, which described a simple method of reprogramming mature mammalian cells.

I felt safe in writing about these remarkable studies because they were published in the prestigious journal Nature. I assumed the work survived a rigorous vetting and editorial process.

Now, a co-author of one of the papers, as well as other researchers, have questioned the scientific integrity of the work. The news blog at the journal Nature reported on March 10 that “within weeks of their January 30 publication, the paper was criticized for irregularities and apparent duplicated images.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Dr Ryoji Noyori, a Nobel laureate and head of Japan’s government-funded research Riken Institute, has apologized for serious errors in the paper. In a news conference, he called for the work to be retracted. The senior Japanese researcher did not mince words: (from the WSJ piece)

Dr. Noyori repeatedly referred to Haruko Obokata, the 30-year-old lead author of the papers, as “immature” and “sloppy.” He said an investigation was continuing into the most serious allegations—in particular, the question of why three images in the papers were nearly identical to three images included in Dr. Obokata’s 2011 doctoral dissertation at Japan’s Waseda University.

The papers have yet to be retracted. Dr. Charles Vacanti, another co-author and a tissue engineer at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has defended the paper, saying the questions raised didn’t affect the findings of the study. The WSJ reported his statement: “In the absence of compelling evidence that the data presented is incorrect, I do not believe that the manuscripts should be retracted.”


I reached out to Michael Zhang in an email. He expressed his disappointment but remained upbeat: “I’m just optimistic that this could be real, but that’s up in the air.”

Another noted researcher in cell biology (a PhD cycling bud) was far more skeptical:

It’s unfortunate that a research group is stupid enough to submit ANY tentative data to a journal like Nature, especially this case, in particular, as they should have known that every top stem cell group would be trying this technique. I haven’t read the paper but saw that it is likely to be retracted so I likely won’t read it.

The state of cell therapy is mind-boggling. I saw several negative studies at AHA, and a meta analysis that would have shown therapy was a wash had it not been for exclusion of a large trial.

With the work on adult stem cells that we have been doing, I am very skeptical of a direct contribution of these cells to any type of tissue regeneration and this holds for ESCs and iPSCs. (Ed note: embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.)

My thoughts: 

The old adage about things that seem too good to be true holds not just for cycling performances but also for science and medicine as well.

Besides the specifics of cell biology, I think there is another important big-picture message here.

That is, the value of skepticism.

Caregivers (and patients) must learn to view evidence with a more doubtful eye. I am not a conspiracy theorist but this sort of stuff has to give one pause. We must learn to read past headlines, to the methods sections of papers. We must train our eyes to see absolute differences in outcomes, not the over-hyped relative differences. Finally, we must also remain aware that scientists and researchers are 100% human.

The good news is that the democracy and transparency of our interconnected world, yes, social media again, will help keep us humans honest.


One reply on “Integrity of acid-bath stem cell paper questioned — possible retraction”

Hello Dr. John,

It is indeed disappointing when such promising studies are suddenly “found out”. It’s also a great example of the beauty of post-publication peer review. It’s what keeps Ivan Oransky and his Retraction Watch folks so busy.

And it’s yet another reason to be skeptical of too-big headlines – such as your sub-head on the original Michael Zhang guest post: “This could change everything about the practice of Medicine.”

That’s a cringe-worthy headline, because there are very few things in life – from Google Glass to stem cells – that can accurately promise in advance to be the saviour of health care as we know it, no matter how much hype surrounds the announcement. It’s kinda like the Dr. Oz ratings-grabbers like: “5 Libido Super Foods That Will Save Your Marriage!” (Yes. Seriously…)

It’s really only in hindsight that we can look back on the shiny and new, and declare that in fact they did what the hype said they would do.

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