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Falsifications Cast Shadow Over Stem Cell Field

Adapted from a story that originally appeared on the Alzforum.

April 18, 2014. Scandals continue to plague the stem cell field, as three more papers are called into question. In the April 10 Cell, researchers led by Asa Abeliovich at Columbia University, New York, retracted a 2011 paper due to falsification of figures by one of the co-authors. The study had reported direct conversion of fibroblasts from people with Alzheimer’s disease into neurons. The retraction comes in the wake of an April 1 announcement by the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, Kobe, Japan, that first author Haruko Obokata had falsified figures in two January 2014 Nature papers. These papers had described a simple conversion of mature cells to a pluripotent state by immersing them in an acid bath, a process nicknamed STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency). To date, the Nature papers have not been retracted, despite calls to do so.

These incidents may further shake confidence in stem cell research, which has been marred by fraud in the past, most notably when a Korean researcher falsely claimed to have cloned human cells by transferring nuclei from mature cells into enucleated human eggs. A blog post written by Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, calls the STAP papers a “disaster” for the stem cell field.

All stem cell researchers contacted by Alzforum declined to speak about the latest developments, refusing also to address the question of whether they believed the core points of either the Abeliovich or Obokata papers remained valid.

For both the Cell and Nature papers, the principal investigators have implied that a single author falsified specific figures. According to the retraction notice for the Cell paper, “Dr. Ryousuke Fujita, who was specifically and only responsible for the molecular analyses of Alzheimer’s-associated pathology [in the derived neurons], has acknowledged inappropriately manipulating image panels and data points.” The fraud affects four figures. The authors note that they are repeating these experiments. Abeliovich declined to comment for this article, but Columbia press officer Doug Levy wrote to Alzforum, “We deeply regret that the conduct of one of our former employees in this instance caused the retraction of this paper.”

Similarly, a RIKEN investigation committee has accused Obokata of falsifying one figure and fabricating another in the Nature papers. Obokata admitted to mistakes but denied fraud (see Normile, 2014). The scandal has been extensively covered in the popular press (see The New York Times story; Washington Post story). RIKEN deputy director Yoshiki Sasai, who is a co-author, has called for the papers to be withdrawn, but said in a press conference that the phenomenon of acquired pluripotency by acid treatment deserves further study (see Japan Times article; Asahi Shimbun article). RIKEN scientists are now attempting to replicate the results.—Madolyn Bowman Rogers.

RETRACTED: Qiang L, Fujita R, Yamashita T, Angulo S, Rhinn H, Rhee D, Doege C, Chau L, Aubry L, Vanti WB, Moreno H, Abeliovich A. Directed conversion of Alzheimer's disease patient skin fibroblasts into functional neurons. Cell. 2011 Aug 5;146(3):359-71. Abstract

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