Last act in stem cell research tragedy

Michael Cook
5 Jul 2014
Reproduced with Permission

The sorry saga of yet another flawed stem cell paper riddled with fraudulent data has come to an end. Nature has retracted a paper and a letter, both published in January, which claimed that physical perturbation of cells could create genetic effects. At the time the results were trumpeted on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

However, scepticism soon set in after other scientists failed to replicate the results. Japan's RIKEN Institute, where the principal author, Haruko Obokata, worked, launched an investigation. One after another the authors retracted the paper. It appears that several careers have been destroyed by the incident and that RIKEN itself may be radically reformed.

In a contrite editorial Nature insists that fundamentally it was not to blame for the debacle, which has placed the whole field of stem cell research under a cloud. "We have concluded that we and the referees could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers. The referees' rigorous reports quite rightly took on trust what was presented in the papers."

As for the future: Nature is drafting new protocols for assessing submissions:

"… although editors and referees could not have detected the fatal faults in this work, the episode has further highlighted flaws in Nature's procedures and in the procedures of institutions that publish with us. We - research funders, research practitioners, institutions and journals - need to put quality assurance and laboratory professionalism ever higher on our agendas, to ensure that the money entrusted by governments is not squandered, and that citizens' trust in science is not betrayed."