Well, this is disheartening. In January of this year, Japanese researchers* at the Riken Center announced that they had found a new, simple, and inexpensive way of making stem cells. In March, a coauthor of the study and several science blogs called into question the legitimacy of the results. Five months later, Nature, a peer reviewed journal. has retracted the study citing critical errors in the article.

Stem cells, the undifferentiated cells capable of developing into any cell in the body, are at the forefront of research on many diseases. Their use is highly controversial both in the US and internationally and the study offered hope that we could finally divorce politics from science and get to curing things.

I'm not going to go into the original study, which you can read here, but essentially "scientists" "found" that skin cells placed in an acidic environment produced embryonic like stem cells. The scientific community and media were understandably thrilled at this undeniably revolutionary finding. After publication, the results were quickly called into question by scientific blogs, but the exciting new study had already been picked up by the media and spread internationally.

An internal investigation at the Riken Center categorized some of the errors in the study as blatant misconduct. Nature said that "errors were found in the figures, parts of the methods descriptions were found to be plagiarized, and early attempts to replicate the work failed."

It's a hard lesson to learn (again), that the people we trust to move us forward can be so wildly unethical. It's also an unfortunate reminder that we can all be catfished by a 30 year old scientist in a lab who decided it would be a good idea to establish a name for herself by completely making stuff up.

That said, this case is also an excellent example of the power of social media - blogs played a critical role in calling many elements of the study into question. These discoveries led to the investigation and rapid retraction of the study. Peer reviewed journals are the gold standard for evaluating scientific research but it's comforting to know there are some checks in place when things slip through.

Prof Robin Lovell Badge of the UK Medical Research Council adds that

"It also illustrates both the problems and benefits of hype, this was potentially important research because of the novelty of the claims in an important field, but it was hyped far beyond reality, by some of the authors and by their perhaps willing victims, the media."

Not surprisingly, the retraction of the study hasn't been covered quite as breathlessly as its initial publication.


*The original article was coauthored by Dr. Charles Vicanti at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston.