More than six months after 30-year-old lead researcher Haruko Obokata released seemingly ground-breaking stem cell research, published in Nature and later retracted for its questionably manipulated findings, the study was attempted again on Wednesday. The government-funded research was found to have fabricated data and flaws, which leaves the medical community and public questioning how it was even published in the first place.
When the study conducted at Riken research institute in Japan was published Jan. 30, it made worldwide headlines and provided optimism to those with Parkinson’s Disease and diabetes, offering promising results it could help. But by Feb. 13, no one was able to successfully reproduce the experiment under surveillance and the institute admitted there were some serious errors throughout the study.
“We at Nature have examined the reports about the two papers from our referees and our own editorial records. Before publishing, we had checked that the results had been independently replicated in the laboratories of the co-authors, and we regret that we did not capture the authors’ assurances in the author-contributions statements,” Nature said in an editorial statement released on Tuesday.
The study gave false promise for major advances in the field of stem cells that are said to have a wealth of potential for developing a variety of cell types in the body during early life and growth. It could act as an internal repair system and divide without limitations to repair and replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is alive. They could become new, healthier tissues or organs when others are damaged or fail.
The research allegedly showed surprising results of stem cells that could be made quickly by dripping blood cells into acid, known as STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition on pluripotency. Obokata will have to replicate her once thought to be trailblazing research in a government-affiliated Riken laboratory to find out if there is any substantiality to her study. She was scheduled to start research on Tuesday but skipped due to poor health, according to Riken. The experiments are expected to continue through April 2015, and an interim report will be released by late July.
If young lead scientist Obokata’s findings were untampered and peer reviewed properly, it would’ve been considered the top three greatest findings in stem cell research. Unfortunately, disappointment availed and the retracted papers stand as a testament to a failed peer-review system. Obokata’s co-author Teruhiko Wakayama even abated to the truth when he called for a retraction back in March.
“It’s unlikely that it was a careless mistake,” Wakayama wrote the Wall Street Journal in an email. “There is no more credibility when there are such crucial mistakes.”
Currently all co-authors of both papers have finally concluded they cannot stand behind the papers' findings and concede to the retractions made by Nature on Thursday. The journal concluded in the editorial release that “editors and referees could not have detected the fatal faults in this work.”
When The Peer-Review Process Fails:
Peer-reviewed studies are crucial in moving forward accurate and thoroughly double-checked facts from the researchers’ methods down to their conclusions. Researchers in outside laboratories must replicate the findings in order for them to be considered reliable. It is at the heart of the processes in not just medical journals but in all of science exploration in order to confidentially build upon stable blocks of confirmed and reliable scientific discoveries.
If one of those blocks or individual studies is riddled with false and manipulated information, those that follow could be erroneously publishing findings based on falsehoods. It’s the blind leading the blind. However, in this instance, many, including Obokata’s co-authors and Riken’s institute director, believe it was purposeful deception at play.
Riken’s Institute Director Ryoji Noyori plans to “rigorously punish relevant people after procedures in a disciplinary committee.” He concludes the paper “amounts to phony research or fabrication. The manipulation was used to improve the appearance of the results.”
Nature originally believed the paper was peer-reviewed by fellow authors and published without checking with them on its reliability. They apologized in their editorial several times and felt the need to retract the study’s two papers “given the extensive nature of the errors currently found.”
“For confidentiality reasons, we cannot discuss the specifics of the review process or history of any Nature paper with anyone other than the authors,” Alice Henchley, the head of press at Nature Publishing Group, told Medical Daily.
However, it seems that many, including Nature’s own independent news team, don’t know what’s going on in the review process.
“For what it’s worth, we were trying to get at the answers to same sorts of questions in our own reporting,” Nature News Features Editor Brendan Maher told Medical Daily.