Research that outlined a simpler, quicker way of making stem cells may be retracted after one of the scientists involved expressed doubts about the basis for the experiments.
Japan’s Riken research center is investigating two studies published in the journal Nature in January and is considering options including retracting them, the government-funded organization said in a statement on its website today. Riken will give a briefing on the probe March 14.
Teruhiko Wakayama, who worked on the research at the University of Yamanashi in Japan, said in an interview with public broadcaster NHK yesterday that he was no longer sure of the premise of the data he used to establish the experiments and that the studies should be withdrawn for review. The comments underscore the pressure researchers face amid Japan’s push into stem-cell science following Shinya Yamanaka’s 2012 Nobel Prize.
“It’s a disappointment for the community when such high profile papers may possibly be retracted,” said Nissim Benvenisty, director of the stem-cell unit at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in an interview. “It’s reassuring that the investigators in this institute are themselves taking the initiative to look into what might have gone wrong.”
The studies found that ordinary cells taken from newborn mice could be transformed into stem cells, the versatile building blocks of the body, without adding genes. Researchers led by Haruko Obokata at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology shocked the cells with a dose of “sublethal stress” such as mechanical force to trigger a transformation.
“The study surprised me when it came out because it contradicted the common sense that we have acquired so far in the field,” Benvenisty said. “At the same time, this is the beauty of the scientific world, that editors allow publications of papers that contradict common sense to allow novel data to be discussed and understood.”
Obokata worked with Wakayama and institutions including Charles Vacanti’s laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
Riken’s media relations department couldn’t immediately be reached. An e-mail to Obokata wasn’t immediately answered.
“I’m not sure what Riken will decide to do,” Wakayama said in an e-mail responding to a request for comments.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to cement the country’s leadership in the field of research and has pushed through bills that fast-track regulatory approval for cell-based products and set new research guidelines. Last year, Japan’s Health Ministry cleared the way for the world’s first clinical trial with stem cells made using a separate technique from Yamanaka, the Nobel Prize winner from Kyoto University.
In an embryo’s early stages, stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can become any type of tissue in the body. As the embryo develops, the cells begin to specialize, or differentiate, into units for the body’s different structures.
There are several ways to regenerate pluripotent stem cells, including one that uses embryos and one that reprograms matured cells by inserting genes.