STAP News From Harvard? Vacanti Stepping Down as Chair & Going on Sabbatical

Vacanti and Obokata

Vacanti and Obokata

What’s the deal with Brigham and Women’s Hospital or Harvard Medical School when it comes to the retracted STAP cell papers?

I was just writing yesterday in part about how we haven’t really heard anything (news, statements, etc.) from those places about the whole STAP cell mess.

In contrast, in Japan and at RIKEN there has been a non-stop flood of news and developments involving STAP.

Now today I’ve heard from a source that senior STAP cell paper author, Dr. Charles Vacanti, will be stepping down as Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology in a couple weeks. He indicated this decision in an email to his departmental colleagues.

It is formally possible that this may not linked to the whole STAP cell situation, but there could well be a connection. Vacanti was not only the senior author on the STAP cell Nature article, but was also the key mentor to STAP first author, Haruko Obokata (both pictured above).

According to the email (pasted below) that he recently sent out to his colleagues, Vacanti is also going on a 1-year sabbatical to, in his words, “contemplate my future goals…” If his institution is investigating STAP, one might well expect the conclusion to come during that sabbatical period. Again, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ here.

I would note from Vacanti’s email that he does indeed have a great deal to be proud about for his department as they have done amazing things during his tenure as Chair.

Dear Colleagues:

It is with somewhat mixed emotions that I share with you my decision to step down as Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, effective September 1, 2014.

When I accepted the position in 2002, I anticipated serving as Chair for a period of 10 years, having a vision of what I hoped to accomplish during that time.  I approach the age of 65 next year having served as Chair of two anesthesia departments – UMASS then BWH – over the last two decades.  I have always felt that a leader is most effective during the first decade of service, after which time there can be diminishing returns on the energy invested in the challenges faced. I feel that is certainly true in my case, and that by this measure, I am two years past due in making this decision.

I am very proud of what we have accomplished as a department over the last 12 years.  We have matured, expanded and reorganized to meet the demands of a changing environment. Our department now provides anesthesia services to patients on four campuses, including 850 Boylston, the BWFH and Patriot Place.  We now provide non-operative anesthesia services to almost 10 times as many patients as we did in 2001.  Since 2002, the number of full professors in our department has more than doubled, as have the number of departmental endowments, with external funding of our research almost tripling despite the overall decline in availability of federal research dollars. This has resulted in roughly 100 original peer reviewed scientific publications each year.

Our Residency program continues to be among the most competitive in the country.  Our Pain Management program is a nationally recognized Center of Excellence.  Several of our divisions, including Cardiac Anesthesia and Obstetrical Anesthesia are arguably the most respected in the country, and I believe we have developed the preeminent pre-admission test center for patients scheduled to undergo a procedure involving anesthesia services. We have also tripled the number of CRNAs on our staff, enhancing our ability to efficiently provide the safe, compassionate care to our patients.

I plan to take a one-year sabbatical to contemplate my future goals, redirect my efforts and spend time doing some of the things that I enjoy most.  When I return in September 2015, I hope to focus a significant portion of my academic efforts on Regenerative Medicine and mentoring the next generation of anesthesiologists.

Dr. Nabel intends to convene a search committee for my successor.  In the interim, Bhavani Kodali has graciously agreed to serve as interim Chair.

I am extremely proud of this department, and the quality of our faculty, residents, fellows, CRNAs and staff, not only as professionals, but more importantly, as people.  It has been a pleasure serving in this department and I am grateful to have been part of it.  I would like to thank each and every member of our team for their wonderful contributions.  I sincerely appreciate the support you have given to me as Chair.

With very best wishes for a stellar future,

Charles A. Vacanti, MD

 

Where will STAP cell mess go from here & key unanswered questions

stap cellsIn some ways it’s hard to imagine that it was only just over 6 months ago that Nature published the two STAP papers by a collaborative team of Japanese and American researchers.

It feels like years have gone by since then because so much has happened related to the STAP mess including the retraction of the papers and the tragic death of one of the STAP authors, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, last week.

Where does the STAP story go from here? Is it over?

In a way, it would be a big relief if it was over, but it doesn’t seem to be at an end.

What’s next for STAP? Some key events are still unfolding and critical questions remain.

RIKEN will continue its own STAP replication effort that includes STAP first author Haruko Obokata, but rumors are that it isn’t working. If the effort formally is considered to have failed in the end that will provide a sense of finality and that is certainly the most likely outcome. If, however, the team/institution says the results were inconclusive or provides some kind of wishy washy “maybe it worked” outcome, this could cause quite a stir.

There are calls for RIKEN to more thoroughly investigate the STAP-related conduct of its researchers since their preliminary investigation was widely viewed as too narrow in scope, but it’s somewhat iffy as to whether that will happen. I doubt there will be a renewed investigation.

It is also unclear what the future will be for the RIKEN CDB, where much of the STAP research took place. There have been calls for the CDB to be reorganized or dissolved.

Where did the supposed STAP cells come from? There have been indications from genetic tests that STAP cells may have come from different mice than originally published and that STAP cells might have been a mixture of cell types including ES cells and trophoblastic stem cells. Work is still ongoing to resolve this huge issue.

Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital might be investigating the STAP situation since researchers from there were authors on and integral to the STAP paper research as well. If an investigation is indeed ongoing, the results are unlikely to be made known until 2015. Assuming there isn’t a whitewash of the situation, the results of the potential Harvard investigation could be important for understanding the STAP mess, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that. I expect blame to be largely deflected from there to Japan.

There is also still the troubling and unresolved issue of how the STAP papers, with so many flaws, made it through the review/editorial process at Nature and got published. Although Nature published an editorial on the STAP fiasco at the time of the retractions, it frankly wasn’t insightful on what went wrong and the journal denied that the STAP situation could have been prevented. Many folks have doubts about that assertion.

Nature itself and reportedly other journals rejected earlier versions of STAP papers. Will the public ever learn more about what happened with these proto-STAP papers and what the reviewers thought of the science? Without that knowledge, the STAP story will remain incomplete and in a sense unresolved.

There is also the larger issue of what STAP might tell us about problems in science, particularly with the deeply troubling suicide of Dr. Sasai. I expect it will take the field quite some time to come to grips with this dark event and place it in the larger context of this situation overall and science more generally.

With so much negative stuff and events orbiting STAP, one of the positives that can come from STAP is that in a sense the wider scientific community collectively got it right on STAP after the papers came out. From my view, the STAP papers were not just wrong and contained misconduct, but also they were a threat to science as well as the reputation of the stem cell field. Further, STAP jeopardized many careers and much funding around the world. The fact that the STAP papers were retracted so quickly and that doubts were raised about STAP came out expeditiously, limited the harm from STAP greatly.

Where does STAP cell mess go from here & key unanswered questions

stap cellsIn some ways it’s hard to imagine that it was only just over 6 months ago that Nature published the two STAP papers by a collaborative team of Japanese and American researchers.

It feels like years have gone by since then because so much has happened related to the STAP mess including the retraction of the papers and the tragic death of one of the STAP authors, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, last week.

Where does the STAP story go from here? Is it over?

In a way, it would be a big relief if it was over, but it doesn’t seem to be at an end.

What’s next for STAP? Some key events are still unfolding and critical questions remain.

RIKEN will continue its own STAP replication effort that includes STAP first author Haruko Obokata, but rumors are that it isn’t working. If the effort formally is considered to have failed in the end that will provide a sense of finality and that is certainly the most likely outcome. If, however, the team/institution says the results were inconclusive or provides some kind of wishy washy “maybe it worked” outcome, this could cause quite a stir.

There are calls for RIKEN to more thoroughly investigate the STAP-related conduct of its researchers since their preliminary investigation was widely viewed as too narrow in scope, but it’s somewhat iffy as to whether that will happen. I doubt there will be a renewed investigation.

It is also unclear what the future will be for the RIKEN CDB, where much of the STAP research took place. There have been calls for the CDB to be reorganized or dissolved.

Where did the supposed STAP cells come from? There have been indications from genetic tests that STAP cells may have come from different mice than originally published and that STAP cells might have been a mixture of cell types including ES cells and trophoblastic stem cells. Work is still ongoing to resolve this huge issue.

Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital might be investigating the STAP situation since researchers from there were authors on and integral to the STAP paper research as well. If an investigation is indeed ongoing, the results are unlikely to be made known until 2015. Assuming there isn’t a whitewash of the situation, the results of the potential Harvard investigation could be important for understanding the STAP mess, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that. I expect blame to be largely deflected from there to Japan.

There is also still the troubling and unresolved issue of how the STAP papers, with so many flaws, made it through the review/editorial process at Nature and got published. Although Nature published an editorial on the STAP fiasco at the time of the retractions, it frankly wasn’t insightful on what went wrong and the journal denied that the STAP situation could have been prevented. Many folks have doubts about that assertion.

Nature itself and reportedly other journals rejected earlier versions of STAP papers. Will the public ever learn more about what happened with these proto-STAP papers and what the reviewers thought of the science? Without that knowledge, the STAP story will remain incomplete and in a sense unresolved.

There is also the larger issue of what STAP might tell us about problems in science, particularly with the deeply troubling suicide of Dr. Sasai. I expect it will take the field quite some time to come to grips with this dark event and place it in the larger context of this situation overall and science more generally.

With so much negative stuff and events orbiting STAP, one of the positives that can come from STAP is that in a sense the wider scientific community collectively got it right on STAP after the papers came out. From my view, the STAP papers were not just wrong and contained misconduct, but also they were a threat to science as well as the reputation of the stem cell field. Further, STAP jeopardized many careers and much funding around the world. The fact that the STAP papers were retracted so quickly and that doubts were raised about STAP came out expeditiously, limited the harm from STAP greatly.

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New Message from Wakayama on STAP retraction & origin of STAP-SC

I have been corresponding now and then with Dr. Teru Wakayama about the ongoing STAP situation. He asked me to pass along the following message from him for clarification on the STAP Nature paper retraction and the origin of the STAP stem cells (STAP-SC).

I would like to take this opportunity to explain the reason for certain differences between the retraction statement in the published paper version of Nature Magazine and the online version of the STAP paper retraction, specifically related to reason No. (5) which was slightly different between the two.

Last month, I reported to the media about the apparent strain difference between mice used in our lab and the STAP cells. Our mouse line uniformly carries identical cag-gfp insertions in chromosome 18, however, STAP-SC appeared to have a different GFP insertion site in chromosome 15. After learning this, I asked for a further analysis to obtain more hints as to the original mouse strain corresponding to STAP-SC. My collaborator found that perhaps the GFP insertion site of STAP-SC was in fact not chromosome 15. However, importantly, the GFP insertion site is absolutely different between our mouse line and STAP-SC. We know this to be the case because we demonstrated that one primer (part of chromosome 18 and cag) only gave a PCR band in our mouse line, but not in the STAP-SC. Thus, the retraction reason of no. (5) is absolutely right. Meanwhile, we are now trying to find the true insertion site of GFP in STAP-SC. Unfortunately, for the paper version of Nature, I could not clarify this point because the deadline had passed. Only the online version could be corrected.

We apologize for any confusion, but in the best interests of science and complete transparency, we wish all of this information to be freely available.

Teru Wakayama

Notes from Paul: I did some minor editing of this text for clarity.

Below is the online retraction statement reason no. (5):

“(5) In the Article, one group of STAP stem cells (STAP-SCs) was reported as being derived from STAP cells induced from spleens of F1 hybrids from the cross of mouse lines carrying identical cag-gfp insertions in chromosome 18 in the background of 129/Sv and B6, respectively, and that they were maintained in the Wakayama laboratory. However, further analysis of the eight STAP-SC lines indicates that, while sharing the same 129×B6 F1 genetic background, they have a different GFP insertion site. Furthermore, while the mice used for STAP cell induction are homozygous for the GFP transgene, the STAP-SCs are heterozygous. The GFP transgene insertion site matches that of the mice and ES cells kept in the Wakayama laboratory. Thus, there are inexplicable discrepancies in genetic background and transgene insertion sites between the donor mice and the reported STAP-SCs.”