Nature retracts highly cited 2002 paper that claimed adult stem cells could become any type of cell

Nature has retracted a 2002 paper from the lab of Catherine Verfaillie purporting to show a type of adult stem cell could, under certain circumstances, “contribute to most, if not all, somatic cell types.” 

The retracted article, “Pluripotency of mesenchymal stem cells derived from adult marrow,” has been controversial since its publication. Still, it has been cited nearly 4,500 times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science – making it by far the most-cited retracted paper ever.

In 2007, New Scientist reported on questions about data in the Nature paper and another of Verfaille’s articles in Blood. Nature published a correction that year. 

The errors the authors corrected “do not alter the conclusions of the Article,” they wrote in the notice. 

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in Minneapolis, where Verfaillie worked when the Nature paper was published, in 2008 found the Blood paper contained falsified images, but Verfaillie was not responsible for the manipulations. Blood retracted the article in 2009 at the request of the authors. 

Verfaillie moved to KU Leuven, where she is now an emeritus professor. She has not responded to our request for comment. 

KU Leuven conducted an investigation of Verfaillie’s work in 2019-2020, after Elisabeth Bik posted questions about the data in her papers, including the one from 2002 in Nature, on PubPeer. The university found “no breach of research integrity in the publications investigated.” 

Bik tweeted about the retraction: 

The notice mentions two image duplications Bik wrote about on PubPeer. Because the authors could not retrieve the original images, it states: 

the Editors no longer have confidence that the conclusion that multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) engraft in the bone marrow is supported.

Given the concerns above the Editors no longer have confidence in the reliability of the data reported in this article.

According to the notice, most of the authors, including Verfaillie, agreed with the retraction. She now has four retractions, by our count.

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15 thoughts on “Nature retracts highly cited 2002 paper that claimed adult stem cells could become any type of cell”

  1. U of MN TC (my alma mater) is doing GrEaT! Really a shame how a university that targeted being “top 3 research school” in USA didn’t get close.

    – Alzheimer’s fraud sending countless research dollars to nowhere. Giving people false hope.
    – Deliberately corrupting Linux.
    – Roundup killing the earth.

    A land grant institution put in place to give the working class ordinaries a chance has become an unaffordable alternate reality of deception.

    Sit back. Collect rent. Hang out at the cabin. All good. A shame.

    1. “Verfaillie moved to KU Leuven, where she is now an emeritus professor. She has not responded to our request for comment. ”

      The penultimate author of the retracted paper, David Largaespada “is a full professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development and the Associate Director for Basic Research in the Masonic Cancer Center at University of Minnesota.”

      Perhaps Retraction Watch could request a comment from him.

    2. You have adequately captured the vast majority of the professors at the university. You should be the president of the university.

    3. All universities covet a top 10 position. Not top 10 in undergraduate teaching, which almost all universities regard as an unfortunate burden. Top 10 in getting research dollars from sources like the NIH, which is supported from American taxpayers.

      Faculty who get this money know that this is the only way they are judged by the university. If the published data they generate happens to be correct, that’s a plus, but not important in itself. Its major importance is in getting more grant money, and, very importantly, supporting the bloated egos of the people who get the grant money.

      1. Exactly true and this is how university ranking works. So shame this kind of fraud is not a real crime

      2. In a way the money has been well spent, mortgages paid off. You can’t go wrong with bricks and mortar!

  2. This is not one off case. Why is it that papers get retracted but these authors still manage to publish in such high impact journals. Many times in the same journal. Shouldn’t the journals bar such authors from publishing for specific duration?

  3. There’s been a large amount of fraud associated with stem cell researchers of early 2000’s. There were scandals in Japanese and Korean institutes, the work of Piero Anversa and now with Verfaillie’s retractions. The damage these people have inflicted upon so many people should be catalogued. Careers there were de-railed, funding that was wasted on them instead of going to people who where performing good science without it being “newsworthy” are items that should be reported. These were not victimless crimes.

  4. When a professor needs to lie and manipulaid the fhoto’s to become a result that she likes can she still be called and be professor?
    An American doktor in Belgium has great and hopefull results, at this moment, young and humble…and a great mind it seems. What should we call her?!?

  5. also a um tc alum; two things…one, aren’t these studies supposed to be replicable? and did that ever happen? how can there be such acclaim and further derivative research without replication? two, what a disappointment for those hoping this breakthrough could lead to the end of the use of fetal pluripotent cells. have the attempts of all somatic cell transformation failed in other studies?

    1. how can there be such acclaim and further derivative research without replication?
      With ground-breaking studies like this, there usually are>/b> replications. For a while. Then people get together at conferences, and talk quietly, and realise that it’s ALL RIGHT not to be able to replicate the results because no-one else is managing to replicate them either.

  6. “…but Verfaillie was not responsible for the manipulations.”

    Interesting. I was always taught that all co-authors are jointly responsible for the contents of a manuscript. If that’s not true, it should be. It sure as hell isn’t Elisabeth Bik’s responsibility to ensure the integrity of that paper, but fortunately she is more conscientious than people who sign their name to a manuscript.

  7. Does this retraction invalidate other studies showing success of forcing adult stem cells to become other stem cells.

    Certainly seems there have been successful experiments showing this is possible.

    1. No, there is research where scientists have made various other stem cells that will each make some kinds of other human cells which so far seems to be sound. What was fraudulent was in the claim in the withdrawn paper that those scientists could make a pluripotent stem cell, ie one stem cell that could be used to make all human cells of any kind.

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