I've been feeling a sense of deja vu lately.
You might have heard the bombshell of a story that came out almost exactly two months ago: researchers reported simply and quickly making super powerful stem cells (called "totipotent" or "pluripotent") from ordinary blood cells via a simple cellular dunk in a weak acid bath.
What the heck?
A collaborative team of Japanese/Harvard researchers reported in not one, but two Nature papers that they had created totipotent stem cells from ordinary blood cells simply by dunking them in a weak acid. The cells turned green via a handy pluripotency driven green fluorescent protein reporter, said the papers.
It almost seemed like a wicked junior high science lab April Fool's prank come two months early, but no. This was supposed to the real deal. Nature sure thought so as did the Japanese research institute, RIKEN, which heralded this discovery as a Copernican moment for biology.
I publicly reviewed the Nature STAP article that first day and tried to keep an open mind, but I felt very skeptical. Now two months later, thanks largely to social media-equipped scientists and others, it seems likely that the STAP cell discovery is a whole lot of noise and not much signal. Despite global efforts to repeat the acid bath STAP cell miracle and an innovative crowdsourcing effort, nobody has reported success.
To make matters worse the STAP papers face serious allegations: plagiarism, image duplication, image manipulation, undeclared conflicts of interest, and more.
What will Nature will do, if anything, if the authors cannot reach a consensus? The journal more recently reject a paper that presented data showing that at least in one independent team's hands that STAP did not work, which may not be a positive harbinger of how Nature will handle this. It's hard to say though.
One of the senior authors of the Nature papers, Dr. Teru Wakayama, has publicly called for their retraction, but the first author of both papers (Dr. Haruko Obokata of RIKEN) and her former postdoc mentor, Dr. Charles Vacanti (senior author on the other STAP Nature paper from Harvard/Brigham and Women's Hospital ) have so far at least indicated that they are opposed to retraction. It's entirely unclear if the papers will be retracted. See interesting interviews I did with Dr. Wakayama more recently and with Dr. Vacanti immediately after the STAP papers were published. I think they tell a lot.
Could the STAP method as yet still be proven to work at some future date? Anything's possible, but I don't believe it is likely and even if that were to come to pass probably the method is going to be an extremely difficult one that rarely works.
But as an eternal optimist, I can say that one of the good things about this debacle has been the relatively open and quick way in which the controversy was addressed by the stem cell field and others. The acid hype was neutralized rapidly. The STAP mess may also have catalyzed future, better scientific review. Or not. We'll see.
- Histones May Hold The Key To The Generation Of Totipotent Stem Cells
- The fate of your stem cells is only as robust as your cellular repair system
- Research Without Controversy: Human Embryonic Stem Cells Developed From 4-Cell Embryo
- Embryonic Stem Cells- Without Destroying Embryos
- Stem Cells Likely To Be Safe For Use In Regenerative Medicine