Health

Author of ‘game-changing’ stem cell papers accused of misconduct, fraud by Japan’s leading research institute 

Haruko Obokata, the lead writer of papers that described how mature animal cells could be reprogrammed back to an embryonic-like state, was accused of misconduct Tuesday by RIKEN, Japan's leading research body. Obokata said she intends to file a counter-complaint.

REUTERS
Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 12:20 PM
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JAN. 28, 2014 PHOTO, JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT Uncredited/ASSOCIATED PRESS Biology researcher Haruko Obokata, the lead author of a widely heralded stem-cell research paper, speaks about her research results on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells during a press conference in Kobe, western Japan.

The lead writer behind stem cell papers hailed as a game-changer in the field of medical biology has been accused of misconduct involving fabrication by Japan's top research body - a finding she vehemently denies.

Two papers published in the scientific journal Nature in January detailed simple ways to reprogram mature animal cells back to an embryonic-like state, allowing them to generate many types of tissues.

Such a step would offer hope for a simpler way to replace damaged cells or grow new organs in humans.

But reports have since pointed out irregularities in data and images used in the papers, prompting RIKEN, a semi-governmental research institute and employer of the lead writer, to set up a panel to look into the matter.

The panel said, for example, that one of the articles reused images related to lead writer Haruko Obokata's doctoral dissertation, which was on different experiments.

"Actions like this completely destroy data credibility," Shunsuke Ishii, head of the committee, told a news conference.

"There is no doubt that she was fully aware of this danger.

"We've therefore concluded this was an act of research misconduct involving fabrication."

Nobel Prize-winning chemist and President of Japanese research institute RIKEN Ryoji Noyori (C) arrives with other RIKEN executives to a news conference in Tokyo April 1, 2014. Two papers published in the journal Nature in January detailed a simple way to reprogramme mature animal cells back into an embryonic-like state that allows them to generate many types of tissue, offering hope for a simpler way to replace damaged cells or grow new organs in humans. But other scientists have been unable to replicate the research's results since then and there have been indications of problems with its data and images.  REUTERS/Yuya Shino (JAPAN - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY SOCIETY) - RTR3JFVL © Yuya Shino / Reuters/REUTERS Nobel Prize-winning chemist and president of Japanese research institute RIKEN Ryoji Noyori (c.) arrives with other RIKEN executives to a news conference in Tokyo April 1, 2014. Two papers published in January detailed a simple way to reprogram mature animal cells back into an embryonic-like state that allows them to generate many types of tissue. But other scientists have been unable to replicate the results.

In a statement, Obokata said she would soon file a complaint with RIKEN, challenging the findings.

"I'm filled with shock and indignation," she said. "If things stay as they are, misunderstanding could arise that the discovery of STAP cells itself is forgery. That would be utterly unacceptable."

Obokata, 30, refers to the reprogrammed embryonic-like cells in her team's research by the term Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency, or STAP, cells.

RIKEN may reinvestigate the matter if a complaint is filed. It has not decided what penalty may be imposed on the researcher, the research body said.

Obokata became an instant celebrity in Japan after the publication of her papers, with television broadcasting images of her wearing a traditional Japanese apron, rather than a lab coat, and working in a laboratory with pink-painted walls.

RIKEN did not confirm or deny the existence of STAP cells, but said it planned to launch a verification process to see if they were real.

That will take about a year to complete and will be led by RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori, a 2001 Nobel laureate in chemistry.

This Jan. 28, 2014 photo shows Haruko Obokata, a researcher of Japanese government-funded laboratory Riken Center for Development Biology in Kobe, western Japan. Scientists at the institute said Tuesday, April 1, that discrepancies in research published in January in scientific journal Nature stemmed from image manipulation and data fabrication. They said Obokata, the lead author of a widely heralded stem-cell research paper, had manipulated or falsified images of DNA fragments used in the research. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT AP Haruko Obokata, a researcher at the Japanese government-funded laboratory RIKEN, has been accused by her employer of misconduct and data falsification.

"This is truly regrettable," Noyori said, referring to the probe panel's conclusions.

"I would like to apologize afresh that articles RIKEN researchers published have damaged the credibility of the scientific community," he said, bowing to reporters as camera flashes went off.

According to the Nature papers and media briefings, Obokata and other researchers took skin and blood cells, let them multiply and then subjected them to stress "almost to the point of death" by exposing them to events such as trauma, low oxygen levels and acidic environments.

Within days, the scientists - Japanese researchers joined by others from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the United States - said they had found the cells had not only survived but had also recovered by naturally reverting to a state similar to that of an embryonic stem cell.

These stem cells were then able to differentiate and mature into different types of cells and tissues, depending on the environments they were put in, they said.

RIKEN said outside researchers had been unable to replicate the research.

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