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14 Mar 2014 04:30

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RIKEN’s duty is to be up-front, address doubts over STAP cell articles

The Yomiuri ShimbunSerious doubts have emerged over articles written by researchers from RIKEN and other institutes that claimed the successful creation of stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells.

This is a regrettable development, especially since the articles on the breakthrough on STAP cells, a kind of pluripotent cell that can be changed into various human body cells, had attracted global attention.

On Tuesday, RIKEN insisted that “the creation of STAP cells was a fact.” At the same time, Japan’s leading research and science institute also revealed it was considering withdrawing the articles. RIKEN must provide a detailed explanation of the matter, and erase the doubts swirling around the articles.

At the heart of this issue are two articles written by a 14-member international team, including Haruko Obokata, a researcher at RIKEN.

The articles, which were carried in the Jan. 30 edition of the British scientific journal Nature, described the groundbreaking development of creating STAP cells by bathing the lymphocytes of mice in an acid solution and then providing a strong stimulus to them.

However, on Monday, University of Yamanashi Prof. Teruhiko Wakayama, a coauthor of the articles, called on other coauthors, including Obokata, to retract the reports.

Wakayama said he had discovered that images purporting to show the pluripotency of STAP cells were almost identical to images Obokata had used in another report.

Wakayama said this “raised suspicions over the credibility of important elements concerning the foundation” of STAP cells. “I’m no longer sure that the articles are correct.” It is no wonder he feels this way.

Red flags missed

Immediately after the articles were published, some experts raised doubts about alleged manipulation and reuse of images in the reports, and suggested that some descriptions had been plagiarized.

The articles had previously been rejected by Nature. Therefore, the data should have been carefully reviewed before it was submitted again for publication. RIKEN’s response to misgivings about the articles is also troubling. RIKEN initially claimed that the reuse of images and other faults were simple mistakes. This inevitably leaves the institute open to accusations that it lacks awareness of how to handle a crisis.

As things stand now, it has not been ascertained whether the research team actually created STAP cells. Although researchers in Japan and overseas are attempting to reproduce STAP cells, the fact remains that not one team has been successful, aside from the group in which Obokata was involved.

Japan’s research into embryonic stem cells has built up a fine record, exemplified by the success of Kyoto University Prof. Shinya Yamanaka in creating induced pluripotent stem cells. There are rising expectations this research could lead to advances in regenerative medicine that could develop into a growth industry.

There are concerns that suspicion over the STAP cell articles could erode confidence in Japanese research in the life sciences. Such fears likely prompted the request by Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura to have the articles withdrawn and the data gathered anew to dispel doubts over the findings.

RIKEN will soon conclude its investigation into this matter. It must provide a response befitting the nation’s leading research institute.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 12, 2014)