11 Mar 2014 15:30

Japanese Institute Regroups After Studies Are Questioned

    By Alexander Martin 

    TOKYO--When Japan's leading science institute unveiled its latest stem-cell research in late January, it put out a news release hailing the results as a "Copernican revolution" in biology.

    Now the research is turning into a seminal moment not for biology but for the stature of the Riken institute, which defended the results against mounting doubts for more than a month before saying Tuesday it was weighing a retraction.

    Outside scientists have pointed to problems with images in two papers published in the journal Nature by scientists from Riken, Harvard University and other institutions. Many have said they can't reproduce the results, which suggested a safe and surprisingly easy way to create stem cells. On Tuesday, Japan's education minister called for an investigation and suggested the papers might have to be withdrawn, pending further studies.

    Japan's scientific reputation got a boost with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2012 to Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka, who developed new ways of creating stem cells. But some scientists here say the troubles with the Riken research point to weak internal controls at the pinnacle of the Japanese scientific establishment.

    "When they issued that press release, they were putting their institutional credibility on the line, and they really should have checked it out more carefully," said Robert Geller, an American seismologist at Tokyo University and longtime observer of Japanese policy on science.

    Others pointed to a lack of an external body in Japan to review alleged research irregularities, leaving Riken in the position of investigating itself. Until this week, the institute's only specific response was to release new tips on techniques used by its scientists to create the stem cells.

    Noriko Osumi, president of the Molecular Biology Society of Japan, said the release of the tips backfired because of apparent contradictions with the original research. "It only served to raise new doubts over the conclusion of the papers," she said in a statement on the society's website.

    A spokesman for Riken said it was investigating the allegations with "maximum speed and meticulousness," and he said it was regrettable if the institute's response appeared to be insufficient. "We humbly accept the criticism," he said.

    What had been a slow-burning debate erupted with a statement Monday by a co-author of the papers, Teruhiko Wakayama of Yamanashi University in Japan, in which he said the research should be retracted because of "crucial mistakes." Dr. Wakayama formerly worked at Riken.

    On Tuesday, Riken held its first news conference since the original announcement and said it planned to report Friday on its internal investigation.

    Riken was founded in 1917 as a private foundation modeled on Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm Society. It is now an independent administrative institution operating under the education ministry. The institute employs more than 3,000 people and received more than 90% of its 2012 budget of about $900 million from Japanese government funding and subsidies.

    It is credited for producing many renowned scientists, but it has also seen its share of scandals. In 2009, a Riken researcher was arrested on charges of misappropriating research funds.

    Riken initially played up the release of the research published in Nature with a news conference featuring lead author Haruko Obokata. Images of the young scientist received wide publicity in Japan and at least one lawmaker suggested she could win a Nobel Prize.

    Riken said Dr. Obokata couldn't be reached for comment, and Dr. Obokata didn't respond to an email.

    "Riken began as a private research body, but it's currently getting so much public funding it's tantamount to a national institution," said Shigeaki Yamazaki, a professor at Aichi Shukutoku University specializing in research ethics. "I believe the flashy public relations campaign it launched could have been aimed at the government, which supplies it with money."

    Write to Alexander Martin at