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Easy Method For Making Stem Cells Was Too Good To Be True

A prestigious scientific journal Wednesday took the unusual step of retracting some high-profile research that had generated international excitement about stem cell research.

The British scientific journal Nature retracted two papers published in January by scientists at the Rikenresearch institute in Japan and at Harvard Medical School that claimed that they could create stem cells simply by dipping skin and blood cells into acid.

The claim raised the possibility of being able to use the cells to easily make any kind of cell in the body to treat many diseases and generated international media coverage, including some on Shots.

But other scientists almost immediately raised questions about the papers, and investigators eventually found that the research papers contained many errors. In April, Riken even concluded that Haruko Obokata, the main Japanese scientist, was guilty of scientific misconduct.

The scientists involved in the work, including Charles Vacanti at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, issued statements regretting the problems with the papers and agreeing that they should be retracted.

"I am deeply saddened by all that has transpired, and after thoughtful consideration of the errors presented in the Riken report and other concerns that have been raised, I have agreed to retract the papers," Vacanti wrote in a statement.

But Vacanti and Obokata said they still believed their techniques could work. In fact, Riken recently agreed to allow Obokata to participate in an experiment aimed at attempting to reproduce the original results.

For its part, the journal Nature said it was reviewing its policies to try to prevent future flawed papers from being published and published retractions of the two original papers as well as the editorial that accompanied them.

"The episode has further highlighted flaws in Nature's procedures and in the procedures of the institutions that publish with us," the journal said.

Brigham and Women's and Harvard both issued statements expressing regret about the case.

"We are fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research. Any concerns brought to our attention are thoroughly reviewed in accordance with institutional policies and applicable regulations," Harvard's statement said.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.