Game-changing shortcut to stem cells? Yes–too good to be true.

Haruko Obokata

[4/11/14: Updates with addition of Cyranoski's story on Feb. 17th, ahead of the others mentioned here.]

Everybody had the story this week: Haruko Obokata, who claimed to create stem cells by stressing embryonic-like cells, has been accused of scientific misconduct.

"The judgement is the latest twist — but not the final word — in the bizarre story of stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency (STAP), a method that researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, still say is able to turn ordinary mature mouse cells into cells that share embryonic stem cells' capacity to turn into all of the body’s cells," wrote David Cyranoski at Nature, just one of many stories that reported the disturbing development. This was a particularly interesting one, however, because Nature had published the STAP papers on January 30th.

But not everybody had the story in mid-March, when suspicions began brewing. "Within weeks, the papers were attacked by scientists over their use of several duplicated images and by those who could not reproduce the work," Cyranoski reported on March 18th. RIKEN, the Japanese organization where Obokata worked, had already launched an investigation.

ScienceInsider had the story the same day. "Allegations that the papers contain images recycled from Obokata's Ph.D. thesis, among other problems, have fed doubts about the claims," wrote Dennis Normile and Gretchen Vogel.

Tina Hesman Saey beat them both, with a story on March 10th reporting that the method of producing stem cells " has so far proven impossible to replicate, prompting calls for the original research papers, published in January, to be retracted." She went on to note that "Qi-Long Ying, a stem cell biologist at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, has tried twice to make STAP cells without success. He is not alone. Ten reported attempts posted to a blog maintained by stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler of the University of California, Davis have also failed."

But maybe Cyranoski was first, after all, with the news that there was trouble in stem-cell land. On Feb. 17th, he wrote that Obokata's results were "under investigation."

Whoever was there first, the dam broke this week when, at a press conference, RIKEN said " it had concluded an investigation into allegations of misconduct, and found that the lead author of the study had improperly altered images of DNA fragments used in the research," as Monte Morin reported at the Los Angeles Times and many others reported elsewhere.

If I were writing a commentary on Obokata, I'd confess to more than a little disappointment. This isn't a comment on the coverage; it's a person reaction. Wouldn't it have been nice if Obokata really had found a simple way to make stem cells?

-Paul Raeburn

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