Such is the case with a purported advancement I blogged about last month in which researchers reported that soaking cells in a mildly acidic solution might be a safer and easier way to make stem cells. Investigators from the Riken Institute had just published two papers in the prestigious journal Nature detailing the promising approach.
It turns out that several scientists—including Teruhiko Wakayama, Ph.D., a co-author of the papers—were not able to replicate the results, which is critical to validating any scientific research. Ultimately, a scientific breakthrough isn’t much of a breakthrough if other scientists can’t perform the experiment and get the same results. In this case, even an original member of the team couldn’t replicate the results.
The details of what went wrong with this project have not been released, but according to The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Wakayama noted “crucial mistakes” in the research, and has asked the lead author, Haruko Obokata, Ph.D., to retract the studies.
The good news is that there are plenty of other ways to make or derive stem cells, including genetically reprogramming one’s skin or blood cells. So there’s no shortage of them for lab or human studies of potential vision-saving treatments.
But this case underscores that research must be scrutinized every step of the way to ensure that what we think we learn is, in fact, true, and that any therapies arising from the process are safe and effective and deliver consistent results.
This situation also shows why we often use words like “might,” “suggests,” “possible” and “potential” to qualify the impact of new research in our reports. We hedge our bets because it takes a lot of scrutiny and tire-kicking along the way until research can be applied safely and effectively in humans.
Pictured, above: Haruko Obokata, lead author of the papers, who’s been asked by a colleague to retract them.