STAP papers discredited, but science may be sound


Although two high-profile research articles on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells were found to be flawed in an interim investigatory report by Riken, the state-affiliated institute stopped short of categorizing it as wrongdoing.

In announcing the interim report, Riken said Friday there had been “inappropriate handling of data” in drafting two STAP-related papers published in a renowned British scientific journal in January.

Masatoshi Takeichi, head of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, told a news conference in Tokyo, “I can’t understand why such a mistake has occurred.”

Haruko Obokata led a team of Riken colleagues that allegedly created STAP cells and she was the lead author of the papers.

Asked whether he thought the team had successfully managed to develop STAP cells, Takeichi replied: “There is no choice but to withdraw the papers now, but a member of the research team has expressed an intention to repeat the research all over again. We will then seek assessments for a new paper (by external researchers).”

Appearing to show a simple way for mature cells in mice to regain the ability to become any type of cell, the two STAP articles made major waves in the scientific community when they were published in the journal Nature in late January. However, those articles have since provoked a spate of doubts about the credibility of the research.

During Friday’s news conference, which lasted around four hours, Riken President Ryoji Noyori, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry, strongly criticized Obokata. “An unskilled scientist dealt with a huge amount of data in an extremely sloppy way without a sense of responsibility,” Noyori said in reference to her.

Obokata has admitted she processed images to make the research papers appear more attractive, according to Riken senior researcher Shunsuke Ishii, who is leading the internal investigation.

Obokata has told the Riken inquiry team that she had no idea the act was inappropriate, Ishii said. “I wonder if she has had no chance to learn research ethics,” he said.

While Obokata is cooperating with Riken’s investigation and is willing to speak at a news conference, her physical and mental conditions are not good at present, Ishii added.

The STAP cell criticism came to light just as a Riken team led by Masayo Takahashi is getting ready to begin clinical research on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells as early as this summer. A key technique to be used in that research was developed by a co-author of the STAP cell papers, Yoshiki Sasai, deputy head of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology.

There are growing concerns that the iPS cell clinical research could be affected by the STAP cell issue, which has eroded trust in Riken. On Friday, 22 researchers at the developmental biology center in Kobe issued a statement vowing to maintain “the highest level of scientific integrity” and saying they are “deeply concerned” about the affair.

“STAP cells are a very important research area,” said Satoshi Tabata, an editor of the international journal DNA Research and head of the Kazusa DNA Research Institute in Chiba Prefecture.

Tabata voiced confidence that third-party researchers would be able to replicate STAP cells and chronicle the research appropriately, saying, “I want them to have another shot, in a responsible way.”

U.S. co-author backs science


A U.S.-based co-author of articles on allegedly groundbreaking STAP cell research has said he opposes their retraction.

“In the absence of compelling evidence that the data presented (are) incorrect, I do not believe that the manuscripts should be retracted,” Charles Vacanti of Harvard Medical School said in a statement Friday. Vacanti plans to discuss with all of the other co-authors whether to pull the papers, according to the statement.

Riken, the institute that led the research on STAP cells, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells, admitted the papers show “extremely sloppy” handling of data and recommended the authors retract them. Vacanti was an adviser to Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the papers.

Vacanti said he will await the final outcome of a formal investigation by Riken, and “in the meantime, I continue to feel that the findings presented in these papers are too significant to disregard based on relatively minor errors or external pressures.”

Vacanti said he will post details about how to create STAP cells on his own website: “This action should enable other investigators to replicate our findings, which is what I believe to be the accepted scientific process. . . . I believe, over time, the science will speak for itself.”

  • Steve Jackman

    Ethics are extremely important and it is difficult to gain back the people’s trust once it has been lost.

    Another similar scandal unfolding in Japan in parallel to the Riken research involves a study conducted by the University of Tokyo Hospital for a leukemia drug, on behalf of the maker of this drug (the Japanese unit of drug maker Novartis).

    Such studies by hospitals and academic institutions are meant to be independent and objective without active involvement of the drug maker, in order to preserve their integrity. However, in this case the University of Tokyo Hospital allowed employees of the Japanese unit of Novartis to be actively involved in many aspects of its clinical trial. Hospital director Takashi Kadowaki has stated that the firm’s employees were virtually managing the study, and even took clinical data back to their company. He also said the employees were involved in the data analysis which was an important part of the study. Furthermore, the lab run by the lead doctor in the study received 8 million yen in donations from Novartis’ Japanese unit. These are serious breaches of ethics on part of the University of Tokyo Hospital.

    The hospital’s own investigative report, which was released on March 14, states, “It was a serious mistake, and this situation hurts the reputation of clinical tests”. In response, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has labeled this a serious situation and said the researchers involved showed a lack of ethics, which may result in punitive measures.

    The timing of the Riken research and this study may be a conincidence, but they both raise serious ethical issues which should be addressed urgently.

  • disqus_58aVR7S45y

    If the researcher in question is being accused publicly by her own boss of not learning research ethics properly, it looks to me as if he is in fact criticizing himself and his organisation. It is their responsibility as much or more than hers to use the established check system they apparently have in place to double check her results before publication. Knowing the way the hierarchy system works in Japan, I can’t help but wonder if someone let her go, to intentionally discredit her findings and allow someone else further up the chain of command take the credit later for getting it right, based on her original studies. Let’s just see how this plays out.

    • Guest

      She wasn’t trained at RIKEN but at Waseda University. She also developed the STAP cell story at Harvard and finished it up at RIKEN after she got hired as a junior principal investigator.