Skip to main content

Scientist wants to withdraw stem cell studies

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
In January 2014, researchers announced they had developed a new method of making stem cells -- by placing skin cells in an acidic environment. But the researchers retracted their papers in July 2014, citing "several critical errors" in their study data. Click through the gallery to learn more about stem cell research. In January 2014, researchers announced they had developed a new method of making stem cells -- by placing skin cells in an acidic environment. But the researchers retracted their papers in July 2014, citing "several critical errors" in their study data. Click through the gallery to learn more about stem cell research.
HIDE CAPTION
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
History of stem cells
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Doubts have emerged about stem cell studies
  • A developmental biology center in Japan is investigating, report says
  • Co-authors disagree about the validity of the data

(CNN) -- Scientists hailed a new method of making stem cells as a breakthrough. But questions about the data used for the two studies published in Nature in January have led one of the co-authors to call for a retraction.

Researchers had said they could turn mature cells into embryonic-like stem cells by stressing them in various ways, such as by putting them in an acidic environment. The embryonic-like stem cells can then be coaxed into becoming any other kind of cell possible.

This method, demonstrated using white blood cells of mice, could be faster and simpler than existing methods. Scientists called them STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells.

Is it too good to be true?

Study co-author Teruhiko Wakayama, professor at the University of Yamanashi in Japan, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK this week he's not confident anymore the experiments generated STAP cells.

Reversing heart failure with stem cells
Understanding the stem cell breakthrough
Indian clinic's stem cell therapy real?

Doubts about the studies have been cropping up on blogs such as PubPeer in the weeks since their publication. The Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, said in February it was investigating "alleged irregularities" in research by Haruko Obokata, lead author of the studies who works at Riken, Nature reported.

Upon reviewing test data, Wakayama discovered multiple problems, including "questionable images," NHK reported.

What's more, outside experts were unable to reproduce the findings of Wakayama's group; Riken then disclosed detailed methods of making the cells, NHK reported.

Wakayama told NHK he has requested that his co-authors retract the studies and then would like outside experts to do verification studies. He said he is "no longer sure about the credibility of the data used as preconditions for the experiments," NHK reported.

A Riken official told The Japan News that "the basis of the articles" -- the fact that STAP cells were produced -- "is unshakable."

In a statement, Riken said that more time is needed to submit final conclusions of the ongoing investigation. The center said it is also considering retraction.

Dr. Charles Vacanti, a study co-author, said in a statement that he stands by the research.

"I firmly believe that the questions and concerns raised about our STAP cell paper published in Nature do not affect our findings or conclusions," said Vacanti, who is director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Harvard Medical School, with which Vacanti is also affiliated, said in a statement: "We are fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research. Any concerns brought to our attention are thoroughly reviewed in accordance with institutional policies and applicable regulations."

Stem cell breakthrough may be simple, fast, cheap

The thriving science of stem cell research seeks to develop therapies to repair bodily damage and cure disease by being able to insert cells that can grow into whatever tissues or organs are needed.

Before the technique described in Nature, the leading candidates for creating stem cells artificially were those derived from embryos and stem cells from adult cells that require the insertion of DNA to become reprogrammable.

Stem cells are created the natural way every time an egg that is fertilized begins to divide. During the first four to five days of cell division, so-called pluripotent stem cells develop. They have the ability to turn into any cell in the body. Removing stem cells from the embryo destroys it, making this type of research controversial because some say an embryo is a human life.

Researchers have also developed a method of producing embryonic-like stem cells by taking a skin cell from a patient, for example, and adding a few bits of foreign DNA to reprogram the skin cell to become like an embryo and produce pluripotent cells, too. However, these cells are usually used for research because researchers do not want to give patients cells with extra DNA.

The new method does not involve the destruction of embryos or insertion of new genetic material into cells, Vacanti said. It also avoids the problem of rejection: The body may reject stem cells from other people, but this method uses an individual's own mature cells.

To study the STAP cell phenomenon, researchers first genetically altered mice donating stem cells to "label" those cells with the color green. For instance, they modified mice such that their cells would light up green in response to a particular wavelength of light.

The scientists exposed blood cells from these genetically altered mice to an acidic environment. A few days later, they saw that these cells turned into the embryonic-like state and grew in spherical clusters.

Scientists put the cell clusters into a mouse embryo that had not been genetically modified. It turned out, the implanted clusters could form tissues in all of the organs that the researchers tested. The scientists knew that the cells came from the original mouse because they turned green when exposed to a particular light.

Besides modifying acidity, researchers also stressed the cells in other ways, such as lowering the oxygen environment and disrupting the cell membrane. Increasing acidity was one of the most effective methods of turning mouse blood cells into STAP cells.

Among the unknowns about this technique are its effectiveness in humans, and what risks the method might pose.

Vacanti told CNN in January he hopes the process could get tested clinically in humans within three years. He noted that induced pluripotent stem cells are already being explored in Japan in humans and the same "platforms" could be used for STAP cells.

CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Science news
updated 12:56 PM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Sun May 25, 2014
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
updated 11:32 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
updated 12:12 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
updated 6:43 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
updated 7:06 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
updated 8:07 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
updated 6:13 AM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
updated 5:25 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
updated 8:20 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
updated 3:10 PM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT