Questions about STAP stem cell studies remain unanswered

17 March 2014
Misinterpretation or misrepresentation of data - more investigation required
In response to concerns raised about a new way to make stem cells - by just adding acid -  the RIKEN Institute has released an interim report of their investigaton into the irregularities in the STAP cell studies. While they conclude that there appears to be no evidence of scientific misconduct, the investigative team viewed that the problems uncovered to date were sufficiently serious to lead the investigative team to recommend retraction of the studies. Commenting on this development,  Stem Cells Australia's Professor Martin Pera provided the following statement about the ongoing investigation and need for RIKEN to move forward quickly and decisively with its investigation to determine whether this major discovery rests on sound scientific basis or whether there are more serious issues that undermine the work.

Last Friday the RIKEN Institute presented an interim report on its investigation into irregularities in the STAP cell studies recently published in Nature. The main conclusion thus far is that images and text were inappropriately presented in the study, but that there was no evidence of scientific misconduct. The problems uncovered to date were nevertheless sufficiently serious to lead the investigative team to recommend retraction of the studies, a view supported by the RIKEN scientists who were co-authors on the paper.  

The RIKEN will be carrying out further investigations into additional allegations. The investigative team indicated that they were not in a position to address critical issue of whether or not STAP cells actually exist.  However, their statements during the press conference seemed to be retreating from earlier contentions that the problems with the papers did not compromise the key findings, a position that will only arouse more suspicions concerning the work.

It is surprising and disappointing that a study of this significance in a leading international journal, reporting a series of findings that seriously challenge existing dogma, would be compromised by inappropriate presentation of data, especially since many of the authors are senior figures in the field with outstanding track records of scientific accomplishment.  

It is also of great concern that, one month after publication, several of the authors appear to be quite unsure as to whether or not the key findings are indeed reproducible.  This lack of clarity can only lead to questions around why the manuscripts were submitted in the first place, with volumes of data that apparently met very stringent criteria in support of the discovery of a new path to pluripotency.  

It is still possible that although errors of judgment and over enthusiasm on the part of the researchers led to some infringements of good scientific practice, the conclusions of the study will stand.  

It is essential now that the RIKEN move forward quickly and decisively with the investigation, to determine whether this bold claim of a major discovery in the stem cell field rests on a sound scientific basis, or whether there are more serious issues that completely undermine the work.  Even if the work proves impossible to reproduce, there is a huge gulf between unintended experimental error, or misinterpretation or over interpretation of data, which has happened many times as the stem cell field has progressed, and deliberate and outright misrepresentation or fabrication of fact.  

We need to know on which side of this gulf the STAP story lies.

More coverage:
Study Called an Advance in Stem Cells Had Faults (14 March 2014) The New York Times