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One of the biggest science breakthroughs of 2014 never really happened

Haruko Obokata, a researcher at Japan's Riken Institute bows as she apologizes at a press conference in Osaka, Japan on April 9, 2014, following claims that her groundbreaking stem-cell study was fabricated
Haruko Obokata, a researcher at Japan's Riken Institute bows as she apologizes at a press conference in Osaka, Japan on April 9, 2014, following claims that her groundbreaking stem-cell study was fabricated
Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images
  • STAP stem cells made with a new "breakthrough" technique probably never existed, according to a new report.
  • The head of the scientific effort, Riken researcher Haruko Obokata, resigned from her position earlier in December after being unable to replicate the technique for making the stem cells.
  • Riken had previously found Obokata guilty of misconduct for fabricating and falsifying some published images.
  • This whole retraction might be one of the better things that has ever come out of a comments section on the internet.

The rise and fall of STAP stem cells

In January 2014, researchers led by Riken's Haruko Obokata published two papers in Nature outlining an exciting and simple new way to make stem cells. They claimed they had reprogrammed cells from newborn mice into cells with embryo-like flexibility using nothing but a simple acidic bath. The method would have been a huge improvement over existing techniques that use genetic engineering. In short, it was a very big deal, and there was a lot of buzz.

But almost immediately, there were questions. An informal poll on biologist Paul Knoepfler's stem-cell blog showed respondents divided on whether they thought the STAP stem cells were real. And by February, commenters at publication review site PubPeer had found some serious flaws in the papers, and Knoepfler's blog was collecting reports from scientists saying that the technique wasn't working when they tried it out for themselves.

So by February, Riken had started an investigation. And by April, it judged that Obokata was guilty of misconduct for fabricating and falsifying some published images. By the summer, Nature had retracted the two relevant papers.

Riken gave Obokata a chance to replicate her results "in a specially built laboratory, where she was constantly monitored by scientists and also by surveillance cameras," says Martin Fackler at the New York Times. But she ultimately failed and soon resigned.

The latest report, released December 26 by a Riken-selected independent panel, states that all three groups of STAP stem cells had been contaminated with embryonic stem cells. And, given that the contamination happened three different times, it's likely that someone did it on purpose.

"It is all but certain that STAP cells described in the papers didn’t exist," Isao Katsura, head of the investigation and director of Japan's National Institute of Genetics, told the Wall Street Journal.

This is a stunning example of social media's positive effects on science

Although it's never encouraging to see scientific misconduct, the speed with which this was caught shows how researchers are now using social media to unearth shoddy science. For example, PubPeer, which basically hosts comments sections for papers, played a huge role in picking these papers apart, as did Knoepfler's blog. Knoepfler sums it up like this:

A big hat tip goes to post-publication review and social media for helping move on from STAP ... Without social media, the STAP papers would in all likelihood remain unretracted through 2015. Why does that matter? Beyond damage to the field’s reputation, there are more practical considerations. Millions of dollars in scarce research funds would have been wasted along with potential damage to many young scientists’ careers who might have been directed to work on STAP in labs around the world potentially for years.

An even bigger stem-cell scandal happened about 10 years ago

This isn't the first time that a huge stem-cell scandal has rocked the science world. No discussion of stem-cell misconduct is complete without at least mentioning Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, who climbed far higher and fell far lower in the early 2000s.

In 2004 and 2005, the Seoul National University researcher surprised the world with papers showing that he had cloned embryos from human adults and made stem-cell lines out of them. This meant that, theoretically, people could get stem-cell treatments that were perfectly matched to them (with no risk of their bodies rejecting them). Hwang became a national hero. Time magazine named him to the "People who mattered 2004" list, and South Korea even honored the work with a postage stamp.

But pretty soon one of his co-authors was accusing him of making up most of his results. In 2006, an investigation by his university announced that the data was fabricated, and the journal retracted the papers. (Scientists wouldn't end up publishing valid results on stem-cell lines from cloned human embryos until 2013.)

Since then, Hwang has admitted to falsifying the data and has been fired and convicted of embezzling roughly $700,000 of government research money.

Further reading

Stem cells were one of the biggest controversies of 2001. Where are they now? I catch everyone up on the latest advances.

Science journals screw up hundreds of times each year. This guy keeps track of every mistake.

The New York Times has a profile of disgraced stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk, who is now trying to rebuild his career.

Biologist Paul Knoepfler has been keeping very close tabs on the STAP scandal and has a handy timeline of the entire debacle.

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