Two studies published earlier this year that purported to show how it was possible to produce embryonic-like stem cells by simply adding weak acid solution to blood cells have been formally retracted by all the researchers involved.
The work, published in the journal Nature on 30 January, enjoyed headlines around the world because it opened the door to the possibility of cheap and easy stem cell "repair kits" made from a patient’s own cells.
However, within weeks of the studies being published they began to fall apart as errors were found in the figures. Parts of the descriptions were shown to be plagiarised and early attempts at reproducing the work failed.
Haruko Obokata of the Riken research centre in Japan, the lead author of the study, was found guilty of misconduct by her employers – a judgement she is contesting – while other more experienced members of the team said that they could no longer trust the results that they had signed up to.
“We apologise for the mistakes included in the article and the letter [to Nature]. These multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole and we are unable to say without doubt whether the [stem cell] phenomenon is real,” the authors said in their letter of retraction.
“Ongoing studies are investigating this phenomenon afresh, but given the extensive nature of the errors currently found, we consider it appropriate to retract both papers,” they added.
Nature said it is reviewing its policies on checking scientific manuscripts before publication. “We have concluded that we and the referees could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers. The referees’ rigorous reports quite rightly took on trust what was presented in the papers,” it said in an editorial.