Last month, Haruko Obokata released back to back papers in Nature which showed how putting mouse blood cells in stress conditions, such as acid, causes them to turn into stem cells. I was pretty excited about the development, and was hopeful that translating these results into humans would allow us an easy way to create stem cells.

Unfortunately, Nature News revealed today that the results are being investigated RIKEN Institute, where Obokata conducted her research. Apparently, there were irregularities found in her articles (spliced and duplicated images), as well as difficulties in repeating the results in other labs (one researcher found his cells die in response to the acid).

These problems are actually pretty common in research. Many people are involved in contributing to top level manuscripts, and there are often multiple versions. I have seen typos and inaccurate labels in published research articles that are obvious honest mistakes. As for reproducibility, it is very difficult to accurately reproduce another lab's unique methods, especially for sensitive culture methods. Often times, you have to be trained directly by experts in order to be able to reproduce their results. The tiniest things like how you mix the samples will affect whether the experiment works. This is a problem the scientific field is well aware of, and why visual experimental journals such as JoVE exist.

At the very least, Obokata's results may not be that easily translatable to humans given the problems with the mouse studies. While I was initially disappointed, it is a comfort to be reminded that the scientific process is at work in order to make sure our understanding of biology is as accurate as possible. This is why the media is touting out a cure to cancer every other week (science news cycle! yay!), yet it is still a leading cause of death in the US. Part of it is because we rarely hear about the follow-ups which show that the "cures" don't actually end up repeating or working in humans.

Stem cell papers in question: the self-correcting process of scienceS

In the end, I hope the errors they found are all honest mistakes, and that more transparent, detailed protocols will be made available so labs can get to making stem cells. While it probably sucks for Obokata, it's a necessary part of the scientific process.

And if it turns out she falsified data? I hope her scientific career DIAF for betraying the public and scientific trust like that.