Scientists worldwide have united in highlighting potentially falsified data and flaws in the peer review system, after questions were raised about the legitimacy of what appeared to begroundbreaking stem cell research published in Nature.
The research in question, a method of producing pluripotent stem cells using a ‘simple’ acid bath, has been heavily scrutinised since its unveiling.
Researchers from both Harvard University and the RIKEN Institute in Japan published a supposedly ‘easy’ reprogramming mouse blood cells into pluripotent stem cells after exposing them to the sub-lethal stress of an acid bath. The group coined the term STAP, Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency, to describe this stress-induced ability of cells to reprogram.
The announcement sent the research community into frenzy, as STAP cells could potentially revolutionise modern medicine as the the ethical concerns regarding the use of naturally occuring stem cells would be renderd irrelevant.
Many began to question the credibility of the data soon after its release. Highlighted issues included not only the lack of reproducibility across the field, but more serious allegations of image manipulation and plagiarism.
Using sites such as ResearchGate and PubPeer, that allow users to ‘publish an open and transparent review’, scientists have tried to replicate the experiment, reporting near unanimous failings in reproducing the data.
Lead author Haruko Obokata has also been accused of data replication in a previous paper, and shockingly, throughout her doctoral thesis.
Both Nature and RIKEN have opened investigations into the matter. While RIKEN have conceded that ‘there had been inappropriate handling of data’ they attracted criticism for saying that there was ‘no malice intended’ and that the mistakes did not amount to misconduct.
Co-author Teruhiko Wakayama has called for the papers to be retracted while further irregularities are investigated.
“When conducting the experiment, I believed it was absolutely right.
“But now that many mistakes have emerged, I think it is best to withdraw the research paper once and, using correct data and correct pictures, to prove once again the paper is right.”
Lead stem cell researcher, Professor Kenneth Ka Ho Lee of the University of Hong Kong, published his failure to replicate Obokata’s work on ResearchGate, even after a second, more detailed, protocol was released in response to the backlash.
“We’re quite confident it doesn’t work,” he said, after repeating it three times under the same conditions. He also questioned how such a high profile journal could have missed such errors. “Peer review is a major problem… there are dirty little tricks in academia.”
ResearchGate founder Ijad Madisch echoed this sentiment. “This is a clear sign the way research is currently evaluated and published is broken. Peer review isn’t working.”