The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Thursday, April 3, 2014

STAP In The Name Of Love

Back in January, Nature magazine published what is now an infamous paper claiming discovery of:
... a unique cellular reprogramming phenomenon, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) ... In STAP, strong external stimuli such as a transient low-pH stressor reprogrammed mammalian somatic cells, resulting in the generation of pluripotent cells.
If true, this would herald a revolution in stem cell research. Potential medical applications of a technique for transforming somatic cells into stem cells cannot be overstated. Sound too good to be true? Well, that's likely the case.

The paper, and in particular its lead author Haruko Obokata, have come under scrutiny due to alleged image manipulation and what has so far been a lack of reproducibility.

This week, Riken published the results of their internal investigation which found two instances of research misconduct by Obokata:
In manipulating the image data of two different gels and using data from two different experiments, Dr. Obokata acted in a manner that can by no means be permitted. This cannot be explained solely by her immaturity as a researcher.
... Dr. Obokata had used images in Paper 1 that very closely resembled images in her doctoral thesis. Yet the experimental criteria for the two papers were different ... this data was extremely important in showing the pluripotency of the STAP cells, and the actions taken by Dr. Obokata completely undermine the credibility of the data. There is no doubt that she was fully aware of this danger, and we therefore conclude that this was an act of research misconduct involving fabrication.
The report goes on to disclaim that verification of the STAP phenomena can only be done through scientific inquiry by third parties. This is true, but STAP is an extraordinary claim which, now that the paper's credibility is completely undermined, is supported by no credible evidence. I think Paul Knoepfler put it best:
There's still a chance that STAP is real, but if I were in Vegas or at the race track I'd put the odds in the single digits at this point. (Source)
A STAP cell begs Obokata-san to STAHP falsifying images.
One bizarre outcome of this fiasco has been a tide of allegations (by know-nothing Internet trolls) that the Riken investigation was motivated by sexism or other such prejudice.
My feeling is that this woman is taking the brunt of this because of her age and gender, and less because she (probably) needs work on her research skills ... From the very beginning of this whole thing they focused on her age and gender and what color her lab was rather than the science. (Source)
A panel of Riken males, who could have several motives for defaming this young woman, have ALLEGED that in their opinion she did something improper. (Source)
I think it is more that Japanese culture agains women. (Source)
This is ridiculous, because concerns over the images and results originally came from the worldwide community. True, the media, especially in Japan, showed a lack of professionalism by obsessing over age, gender, and what color her lab was. Lack of professionalism in science journalism should hardly surprise anyone, least of all those familiar with my blog.

Ironically, those know-nothings crying sexism are the ones guilty of prejudice. By assuming the Riken committee members are motivated by sexism they are buying into the stereotype of Japanese male chauvinism.

In reality, maintaining the institution's reputation is the obvious motivation for the investigation. The threat this paper poses to their reputation is due both to the extraordinary claims, and also the media circus. Recall that the latter is arguably due to some sexism, but on the part of the media who flocked to cover this story of a young female scientist.

I might also point out that panel of committee members is not all male. Bizarre conspiracy theories like this are only able to exist when rooted in poorly researched assumptions.

Misconduct aside, the thing I find the most fishy about STAP is the inconstant protocol. The original paper in the January edition of Nature laid out a protocol for creating STAP cells. Labs used this protocol, but failed to replicate the results. Early in March, Obokata published a more detailed protocol which seems to indicate that STAP cells are difficult to make. The new protocol also contains steps that look like after-the-fact manipulation and back-peddling.

Later in March, Charles Vacanti independently published a still-different protocol. Vacanti is co-author on the original paper, and namesake for that mouse with an ear growing on it's back. Despite his claims that this new protocol of his is able to create STAP cells easily and in just 2 days, no labs have yet claimed replication.