Top 5 excerpts of BioSciTech article on crazy STAP stem cell situation

STAP stem cellsThe STAP stem cell saga is like something out of a soap opera.

Maybe we should call it “As the Stem Cell World Turns”. See the little green STAP spheres at right and imagine them turning like little worlds.

One of the best pieces I’ve read on STAP was today’s article by Cynthia Fox at BioscienceTechnology.

It is balanced and nicely captures the craziness of the current STAP stem cell situation with some unique quotes.

Below I’ve put my top 5 favorite, most surprising quotes and elements from that story.

  • 5. “Even Teru Wakayama, a co-author on the Nature reprogramming papers that stunned the stem cell world this month, says he can’t reach the first author on both: Haruko Obokata.” How can Obokata not be available to Dr. Wakayama?
  • 4. “Lab after lab, worldwide, began giving acid cocktails to their cells.” I almost imagine itsy bitsy Martini glasses being handed out in tissue culture hoods around the globe to cells. Acidtini anyone?
  • 3. Quoting Wakayama “Even me: I succeeded in this work at Riken, but I have not been able to in my new lab. That is puzzling and is understandably frustrating.
  • 2. Dr. Vacanti: “I think I should just go to vacation in Mexico for several weeks,”  Yeah, I don’t blame him for that sentiment.
  • 1. And again Dr. Wakayama  “I do not doubt that someone, someday, will reproduce this.”  I hate to say it, but not a very encouraging quote.

What’s next for STAP stem cells? Almost nothing would surprise me at this point.

10 thoughts on “Top 5 excerpts of BioSciTech article on crazy STAP stem cell situation

  1. A sharp-eyed anonymous tweeter in Japan, @JuuichiJigen, has noted that that the Obokata et al. paper discussed the use of “pasture pipettes,” which is presumably a misspelling of “Pasteur pipettes.” From my own experience writing in a foreign language (Japanese) I have some sympathy for the Japanese authors, but some of the co-authors were American, and presumably if they’d read the paper carefully they and also Nature’s editors, copy-editors, and referees ought to have caught this error. If pasture pipettes is really correct, my apologies. But if this is an error, let’s all refrain from references to Biff Tannen and what he hated most.

    • I think there is truth in this statement – this is a witch hunt. However the authors and indeed, Nature, have opened themselves up to it. The technique has a “cold-fusion” too good to be true feel to it – such that people were bound to look very closely at the results. And, alas, when you start looking at the paper very closely it is notable how many problems there are with potential manipulations of the figures or questionable results. It isn’t a few isolated problems, as most newspaper reports suggest; as this blog has demonstrated, there are panels in *every* figure that raise red flags. Nature really should have done better due diligence in the review process.

      My current hope is that this isn’t outright fraud, rather the technique might work – but badly/rarely, and the resulting cells are akin to genetic escapers. If so, a concern would be that there is something “special” (and not necessarily good) about the cells that let them escape. Time will tell.

  2. I think the most important takeaway for me was the following:

    “–Riken representatives this week say her team is almost done with a much-demanded, detailed protocol, aimed at teaching all comers how to make the new stem cells. The protocol, “in the late stages of preparation,” is coming “soon”…”

    This is exciting news. If labs are still unable to repeat the results after following the protocol, then we can get REALLY worried.


    I don’t know if it was covered here, but some people in Japan recently pointed suspicious similarities of the Karyotype analysis section to the Chromosome preparation section in “Multicolor karyotype analyses of mouse embryonic stem cells.” by Guo et al. in Vitro Cell Dev Biol Anim. 2005 Sep-Oct;41(8-9):278-83. There are also some typos that are akin to OCR errors in this paper by Guo et al.

    Putting the suspicion on plagiarism aside, I’d like to know if the method that Obokata et al. used is really making sense as it is extremely similar to the above mentioned method by Guo et al. In any case, they could at least properly cite this paper by Guo et al. (though it a separate issue from the validity of STAP cell).

    • wow…

      i always suspected that Harvard published garbage in Nature, but i didn’t know they were so lazy that they’d steal from other articles blatantly.

      i guess we are learning just how much humanity has suffered from the institutionalization of science, and the resulting/continual/habitual abuse by corporate entities.

      disappointing to say the least.

    • I also read the blog written in Japanese about similarities found between Dr. Obokata’s paper and Guo et al.’s one. It seems to me it’s hard to say “it’s just a coincidence”. You will find the same typos in Dr.Obokata’s paper as if she copied it from Guo et al’s paper. No scientist types potassium chloride as KC1 or carbon dioxide as C02. Anyway, I really don’t understand why Dr. Obokata and her co-authors don’t respond to the inquiry from Nature. One of the authors said Dr. Obokata must have mixed up the images and picked up a wrong one and it’s nothing but a minor mistake”. But if so, where is the “correct image”? Why don’t they just submit the correct one and explain to the world ?

  4. People outside Japan should realize that Riken rolled out these papers with an enormous blast of publicity. You can see the official English language Riken press release here.

    The title of the press release was “STAP cells overturn the pluripotency paradigm.” And in the release, the deputy director of the first author’s section of Riken said: “I think it is no exaggeration to say this represents something of a Copernican revolution for developmental biology,”

    The Japanese media, in accordance with this buildup by Riken, initially treated the two papers by Obokata et al. in exactly the way it was presented by Riken’s press release, namely as a new scientific revolution. And this is how it was initially presented to the public by the media. In this sense it is very reminiscent of the blast of publicity that accompanied Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion announcement in 1989, with the difference, of course, that Riken and Obokata et al. quite properly waited until just before publication in a scientific journal, and the initial PR was under embargo until Nature’s release deadline.

    But, given the framework established by press release issued by the first author’s institution, the papers will now be judged by the general public in Japan by this incredibly high standard. Thus what’s going on isn’t (IMHO) a witch hunt but is just a natural reaction to the claims for the importance of the research made by the first author’s institution. This publicity is what got people like me (a seismology professor in Japan) from other fields and other professions to become aware of this work in the first place, so it’s natural that there will be a bit of a backlash if the paper (even if ultimately validated) falls short of being a new scientific revolution, and even more of a backlash if it turns out the paper was incorrect (for whatever reason).

    • this quote:

      “I think it is no exaggeration to say this represents something of a Copernican revolution for developmental biology,”

      elicits laughter, but some disappointment also ensues.

      you’d think they were worried about reproducibility before publishing a “method” that is supposed to cause the revolution.

      i guess not.

  5. I was extremely skeptical about the STAP cells from the very beginning, and the biggest reason is that I’m a firm believer in the need to actively try to find evidence that goes AGAINST our wishing thinking, not in the same direction (whether we’re in the hard sciences or not.) Few things could have made me happier than if STAP’s really had the potential touted. But from Minute One, the wild-eyed, hyper overoptimism in the popular press seemed to me to be a major clue towards “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Nobody in the press was immune to the craziness– we even had it on Seeking Alpha (the stem cell investors’ blog.) There seems to be something about that kind of nuttiness which indicates that even the reporters know at some deep level that the claims are too good to be true.

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