Obokata agrees to retract one of two STAP stem cell papers in Nature: Reports

nature 2-27-14The Kyodo News service has reported that Haruko Obokata has agreed to retract one of the two Nature papers on an easy method of making stem cells.

According to the report:

Embattled Japanese scientist Haruko Obokata has agreed to retract one of two STAP cell research papers from the journal Nature, while maintaining she will not retract the other major paper, her lawyer said Wednesday.

It is the first time that the 30-year-old researcher from the state-backed Riken institute has agreed to have a paper retracted in connection with the high-profile study that quickly drew questions and allegations of misconduct.

Along with Obokata, who led the study into the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells, two other main co-authors have given their consent to retract it, sources close to the matter said.

One of the co-authors of the articles, which came out in January, already has requested that both papers be retracted.

The Japan Times has a few more details, which suggest “Bidirectional developmental potential in reprogrammed cells with acquired pluripotency” is the paper to be pulled:

Of the three researchers, her lawyer said University of Yamanashi professor Teruhiko Wakayama is responsible for the paper Obokata has agreed to retract. He was engaged in all experiments, and Obokata wrote the paper under his guidance, lawyer Hideo Miki said.

She e-mailed the other main co-author, Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, that she would have no problem if Wakayama wants to retract it, Miki said.

Hat tip: PubPeer

18 thoughts on “Obokata agrees to retract one of two STAP stem cell papers in Nature: Reports”

  1. Inaccurate imagery found again in STAP cell papers

    Riken CDB’s investigation team (Not Riken’s Research Paper Investigative Committee
    ) reported that Fig.1a (ES chimaera) and Fig.1b (STAP chimaera) in the Obokata’s Nature Letter (Nature. 2014 Jan 30;505(7485):676-80.) are derived from the same mouse.

    , and that Nature Article’s Ext. Fig7d (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7485/fig_tab/nature12968_SF7.html) and Nature Letter’s Ext. Fig.1a (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7485/fig_tab/nature12969_SF1.html) are derived from the same mouse.

    These findings indicate that the authors have committed research misconduct not only in the Nature Article (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7485/full/nature12968.html) but also in the Nature Letter (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7485/full/nature12969.html).

    However, RIKEN has decided not to re-investigate these new allegations of research misconduct in the Nature Letter.

      1. I agree, Stewart. On the one video, which has unfortunately only been viewed 10,000 times, he/she lists 68 cases of figure maniulation. Imagine the ripple effect if MEXT, the Japanese ministry of education, would provide Jigen and others with a data-base of all Japanese scientists, to invoke a response, and nation-wide discussion. YouTube provides a nice way to supplement a report and has given me a nice idea for representing my 180 page report on misconduct within the chrysanthemum literature, which I hope will serve as a prototype for post-publication peer review in the plant sciences. It is astonishing that submission of my paper to at least a dozen tp level plant science jorunals and even non-plant science journals is nducing such a strong rejection, indicating how PPPR is extremely far from being mainstream and how self-publishing using even a simple patform, in open access, might be the only way forward for critics, whistleblowers and those who do not have an invested interest in the “for-profit system”.

        1. ” indicating how PPPR is extremely far from being mainstream and how self-publishing using even a simple patform, in open access, might be the only way forward for critics, whistleblowers and those who do not have an invested interest in the “for-profit system”.

          Hurray! I am happy to see that I have influenced you on this! 😉

          1. CR, my ideas on PPPR were in existence long before I ever knew of your existence. Your influence on me has been null. I intorduced the iPublish concept at Global Science Books in 2007/2008, even before the idea of PPPR was existent in main-stream. IPublish allowed authors to conduct full pre-publication peer review prior to submission to a GSB journal, which hen followed through with a second, independent peer review. Papers submitted under the iPublish platform were always accompanied by peer reviewers’ reports, and the names and e-mails of those peers, always three, who were contacted about their peer reports.

            I believe that iPublish was a revolutionary concept that existed long before F1000, Frontiers, or most other current main-stream PPPR or fully transparent peer review systems existed.

      2. It is definitely impressive work, but it is only the tip of the iceberg or even less, blots and blots, endlessly. What lurks down there in the ocean of fraud is beyond our imagination. Everything that comes in form of a spreadsheet or similar can be easily fabricated, and these fakers will slip away. The only true way to stop the epidemic of misconduct is to remove the perverted standards and incentives set by the glamour journals and funding organizations.

        1. On the issue of anonymized whistleblowing, an impressive collection of potential problems in 14 papers by Azusa Okagawa and/or Kanemi Ban:

          The heat is on, but we need more volunteer whistleblowers and anonymous post-publication peer reviewers. There seems to be some excellent underground work taking place in Japan, and the world could benefit by the example being set by these trail-blazers (ignore the Japanese explanations and focus on the figures).

          Good work whoever is exposing the truth. At least for plant science, I am setting up my own data base of Japanese and international pant scientists.

  2. I could not understand if there were any “strings attached” with this retraction. How could Obokata, who fiercely maintained her innocence one month ago, give in so easily to admitting guilt? This story stinks and I wonder if pressures or duress was imposed on her and her partners… I am not a lawyer, but I interpret this as now the lawyer Miki has gone from defending an innocent client to now defending a guilty client, by self-admission. I assume that when any scientist agrees to the retraction of a paper, that legally this is the ultimate stamp that publisher’s lawyers require to seal the case. I also assume that admission of guilt, by agreeing to retract a paper, has to come with consequences. Independent of the criticisms that I have of Japanese institutes for not doing enough to “clear the books” and reform the system, it is hard to believe that a “guilty” verdict (even if only in academic circles) will go by silently. As I always ask for other retractions, if the studies were forgeries, in some way or another, or if misconduct was the basis for that published study, surely this would imply that salaries, grants (research and travel), and other resources were being received and used incorrectly. In the case of Obokata, at RIKEN, this was mainly private money, but money is still money. And squandered money nobody likes to see. As much as I empathize for the struggle and suffering that I have seen (through the media) in this scientist, who I still believe is an innocent victim of circumstances that could probably never have been envisioned upon submission, serious issues need to be resolved: a) will she reimburse salaries and grants received related to this project? b) will her senior partners, Wakayama and Sasai, who have also admitted to guilt, or negligence, repay wasted funds, travel funds and research grants? c) What criminal conviction is possible for academic misconduct under Japanese law? I always say that the “crime” is always so much less when money is not involved. But these are mega projects that involve millions of yen, and run by scientists who make tons of money in salaries and grants, so I strongly disagree that a retraction be the end game here. I’d like to see a few faces behind bars, or at least some bank accounts with a few less zeroes in it. A retraction for these “big shots” in science is nothing. While Obokata might have suffered tremendously psychologically, I don’t see any visible remorse on the faces of Wakayama and Sakai. To them, a retraction is just a bruise. If in fact these “academic criminals” do not serve jail time, or do not face serious penalties (such as hundreds of hours of community service) or severe penalties, this will be a slap in the face of academic justice. However, protest against the government is now illegal in Japan (notice the perfect timing with Abenomics phase/arrow II), so to protest and demand greater justice in academics when the focus is increasingly on military and banking, is a losing battle. Science is headed for the sewer in Japan, and elsewhere, as confidence gets swept away and scientists start to eel disillusioned, enraged and lost.

  3. Somehow this simply does not make sense. Serious concerns have been raised against the other paper as well (inaccurate modification of the image of a gel strip, reused microphotographs from her PhD thesis which were from a different, completely unrelated project etc.).

    Moreover, there is the ongoing debate whether this whole STAP-phenomen exists! Now stem cell research is not my cup of tea, but I have noticed that there a lot researchers, and self-proclaimed judges out there who harshly criticize and joke about STAP, but fail to make any actual contribution (e.g. attempting to replicate the results by following rigorously the original(!) protocol), despite the fact that STAP-technique appears to be a relatively simple and cost-efficient method (thus proving or disproving it should be easy at least in theory).

    This should be settled once and for all and 1) if STAP does not exist then everything else is irrelevant and both articles should be retracted 2) if STAP exists under certain conditions, but it is not nearly as easy and straightforward, then at least the idea can be salvaged, but even in this case a new, clean publication by the original authors, and the simultaneous retraction of the “contaminated” papers would serve the community better.

  4. ” despite the fact that STAP-technique appears to be a relatively simple and cost-efficient method (thus proving or disproving it should be easy at least in theory).”

    Since the experiment would be easy to do for anyone in possession of suitable cells, we can presume that it has been tested many times over since the big announcement. Since as far as I know, no one is claiming to have reproduced the effect, it is a reasonable conclusion that it does not work.

    And since the result was very surprising, it is up to the authors to show the work is real. But once published the work fell apart immediately. As far as I know there is no worthwhile data showing that it might be true. So in actual fact there is nothing to discuss. Just write it off with cold fusion.

    1. BB and Dan, you might be interested in this web-site (http://www.ipscell.com/stap-new-data/), which reports on trials that were conducted to try and replicate the findings, specifically to geerate STAP stem cells. Thus far, from 11 trials, 9 showed negative results, one moderately positive, and one replication. Given the experimental nature of science, that ONE positive study actually has more weighting than the 9 negative studies, in my opinion. Given how fresh this case still is, and the massive discussion it has geneated globally, I still think it is too premature to say anything concrete. I imagine that many labs are interested in STAP stem cells and the Obokata et al. simple methodology, and are right now conducting trials. This includes RIKEN, which promised to repeat the experiments. This takes time. I expect that by the end of this year we might have a more realistic perspective abut this. This case is here to stay for some time yet as new data emerges. Also, of interest: http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/04/scientist-quits-effort-live-blog-stap-cell-replication

      1. “Thus far, from 11 trials, 9 showed negative results, one moderately positive, and one replication. Given the experimental nature of science, that ONE positive study actually has more weighting than the 9 negative studies, in my opinion.”

        I think you misread the page. The one positive result was later changed to negative.

        But in any case, 1 out of 10 replications for a _published_ work is a clear refutation. It means, without ambiguity, that the authors have not characterized the important parameters of their system. If STAP-like procedures produce stem cells in some rare cases it means that the original authors have failed to identify and demonstrate what is causing the effect. Since it doesn’t work robustly we can conclude that the claims are either entirely spurious or else the authors have no idea what is going on. In either case no progress has been made.

        1. Dan, ” for a _published_ work is a clear refutation.”- depends on the field quite a bit. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I do work with a few tissue culture people. It’s a pain in the @ss, experimentally speaking, compared to protein purification work. The fact that it even replicates *at all* in more than one lab is exciting, sadly. Life is not exactly a physical science, yet.

          We need to start viewing these tissue cell biology papers- esp the “high profile” ones- as Interesting, but not True until someone else independently replicates the work in another lab. It’s worse than protein crystallography in terms of the variables involved. The real problem is that this ain’t gonna be cheap; tissue culture is pretty pricy work.

        2. Just to add to Dan’s message: Indeed, the one positive result later turned negative. Note also that the person who reported the initial replication, Yoshiyuki Seki, is from Kwansei Gakuin, and can therefore hardly be considered as a completely independent replication, anyway (Teruhiko Wakayama’s former affiliation).

          The most prominent of the replication attempts has probably been that of Ken Lee: http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/04/scientist-quits-effort-live-blog-stap-cell-replication, and he concluded that further research into STAP cells is a waste of time and resources. Note that they at one point did think they had replicated the results in part, but this turned out to be autofluorescence. It has been suggested that this is actually what Obokata, too, observed instead of true stem cells, but perhaps never realized it (or, worse, that she did eventually realize it but went ahead and published, anyway).

          In any case, the reason they do not want to retract the other, arguably more flawed, article might have to do with some patent pending legal reasons. They might also be hoping that someone might at a later date after a considerable modification to the protocol be able to show the existence of “STAP” cells. Now the procedure might be so different as not to really be STAP, but if they are based on acid bathing, Obokata et al. might try and claim academic priority, where none should of course be awarded.

          1. Thanks for the comments correcting my analysis of the 11 trials. I notice now, in retrospect, that that web-site was dated March, 2014, so in fact, it was not current. So, at least we know that basically 0/11 trials worked. I think a key word is “autofluorescence”, as pointed out by amlamal. As was suggested by Allison, there will be little appetite to try and repeat the results as this is a costly business. I am just thinking, from the retracted paper (and the as-yet unretracted paper) what can be salvaged, and what is actually factually correct information? When I look at the mind-boggling amount of analyses and proof in any one of those papers, and when one knows how each step is so intricately linked to the other, how could so many “positive” results have existed if, in fact, “STAP” cells didn’t actually exist?

        3. With all due respects I have to disagree.

          1) It is definitely true that even if STAP is partially true, Obokata et al. stumbled across it only accidentally, and failed to unravel the key factors and mechanisms that might actually promote the reprogramming (far too much emphasis was given on the acid bath – a rather simplistic approach).
          In my opinion their STAP protocol may have worked in their own lab, but they could not optimize it, and its overall performance and reproducibility remained poor, despite repeated troubleshooting. Nevertheless possibly due to being afraid of competitors they took the risk and forced it through the patenting and peer-review process. Unfortunately the presence of image manipulations in the paper and the generally sloppy practices of Obokata created an atmosphere of data fabrication.

          2) Lets not give too much emphasis on these early efforts. Establishing new method in your lab is difficult, even if you firmly believe in it. In this case however most researchers first denied the existence of STAP, and tried to repeat it only thereafter! You can imagine the possibility and extent of experimenter’s bias in a situation like this.
          Furthermore, as we currently do not know the actual key steps and tipping points in this proccess, it is hard to implement everything that might be neccessary (probably even a slight alteration – e.g. using the same reagent but from a different manufacturer – can create a butterfly effect which then in turn alters the outcome)

          Obokata et al. probably made the biggest mistake by not acknowledging the serendipity nature of their discovery, the obvious limitations of their method, and presenting it as flawless and streamlined.

          PS JATdS: thank you for the link!

  5. I do not understand why anyone wants to publish in this magazine .
    The goal of any publication is to share knowledge . If nature magazine does not want to the job for you because they cannot make money on their impact factor and report profit, then, he’ll with them. Do not even cite their published work and see who will come begging for your work. Both can play this game. The loser is the one who wants to make money.

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