Stem Cell Breakthrough Called Into Question

A startling new finding that acid treatment can create stem cells has come under intense scrutiny by the scientific community.

AsianScientist (Feb 25, 2014) – Two papers published in the journal Nature in January have taken the international scientific community by storm; firstly by the unexpected novelty of their findings, but also by the controversy which quickly followed.

Haruko Obokata’s group at RIKEN reported that stem cells could be made simply and develop into both the embryo and placenta. They found that treating cells with mild acid for 30 minutes was sufficient to convert them into stem cells, a method which avoids the many pitfalls and concerns associated with existing techniques. Hailed as a major breakthrough, their simple, cheap and fast method received extensive media coverage, and was deemed so significant that it quickly led to a partnership between RIKEN and Kyoto University to promote the practical applications of the newly found stem cells.

However, even before the media fanfare died down, allegations of research misconduct have surfaced. A week ago, Nature News reported problems concerning two images, one in each of the papers published. In the first image, one part of a figure seems to have been spliced in, while in the other figure, a single image appears to have been used twice in what are meant to be different experiments.

Obokata, the lead author of the study, has been unavailable for comment. Teruhiko Wakayama, a co-author of both papers, agreed that the images are similar but that it could simply be a case of confusion, reports Nature News. As he explained to Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, Obokata’s “extremely heavy workload”, conducting experiments while preparing figures, could have contributed to the confusion.

Although the problems with the images in question do not significantly affect the conclusions of the study, they have raised concerns in the scientific community. This has been worsened by the fact that other scientists have found it difficult to reproduce the results; none of the ten prominent stem cell scientists contacted by the Nature News team has been successful as of yet.

Both Nature Publishing Group and RIKEN have launched their own investigations into the issue.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Photo: ZEISS microscopy/Flickr/CC.
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Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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