Japanese Institute Opens Investigation Into Its Stem-Cell Breakthrough

by jeeg 18. February 2014 22:41

A Japanese government-funded science institute said it has opened an investigation in response to questions raised about images in a groundbreaking study on stem cells.

The Riken research institute said Monday that it began the investigation Thursday, after allegations of irregularities in images used in two pictures posted in the British journal Nature.   

The study was carried out by an international team that was led by Haruko Obokata of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology. The team found that mouse stem cells could be created by putting blood cells in a mild acid solution. If confirmed and extended to human cells, the technique could offer a safer and more ethical way to create stem cells and potentially help doctors use patient-specific stem cells in treating diseases.

Currently, stem cells that can become all other tissue types would potentially be obtained in two ways. One way would require a patient's cells to be cloned into an embryo in a lab dish; extracting stem cells from such an embryo is controversial because it is destroyed. The second potential approach, which uses genes to reprogram a patient's mature cells into an embryonic-like state, carries the risk of cancer.

The Nature publication gained global attention.

Riken said the images alleged to have irregularities include a photo of a placenta that the authors said was created from the new kind of stem cells, which they called STAP cells, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. On Internet forums such as PubPeer, a post-publication peer-review platform for scientists, some commenters said the same placenta image seemed to be used multiple times.

Riken declined to offer more specifics regarding the assertions and said it started the investigation after an outside expert brought the matter to the institute's attention. A spokeswoman for Riken said a team of internal and outside experts is looking into the matter. She said they believe the Obokata team's findings remain valid. She said Ms. Obokata and other team members have been questioned and the results of the inquiry should be announced next month. Ms. Obokata couldn't be reached to comment. She has received extensive publicity in Japan since the publication of her team's findings on Jan. 29.

A spokeswoman for Nature said, "We are aware of the issue and are looking into it," declining to provide further details.

Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital and co-author of both Nature papers, whose research laid the groundwork for the findings reported in the journal, said: "Since the studies came out, people have been looking at this very closely. They're pulling everything apart because they want to make sure it's all on the up and up. I believe, in discussing this with [some of the co-authors], that this was a simple mistake. There was no intention of fraud and it has no impact on the conclusions" of the research.

Stem cells are unspecified cells that can produce any of the specific cells in the body. Scientists hope that research on stem cells could lead to work on organ regeneration and treatments for conditions including blindness and diabetes.

Alexanfer martin, Wall St Journal



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