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Obokata files appeal for reinvestigation

Stem cell researcher denies misconduct; institute plans yearlong verification of STAP cells

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Haruko Obokata filed an appeal with the government-backed Riken institute Tuesday demanding a reinvestigation of allegations of misconduct against her.

The stem cell researcher has been accused of falsifying data in a published paper on STAP cells, a still unconfirmed advance in generating stem cells.

Obokata, 30, was hospitalized Monday due to “her poor physical and mental condition,” her lawyer, Hideo Miki, said, adding she is still willing to speak at a news conference in Osaka slated for Wednesday.

It would be her first public appearance since Jan. 28, when she announced the findings of her research on STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition pluripotency) cells in Kobe.

In her appeal Tuesday, Obokata denied any “falsification” of an image that she said she only intended to enhance. Another image used in the same paper was simply the wrong one, and did not involve “fabrication,” as alleged.

Obokata also complained in her appeal that she was not given enough chances to account for herself, saying the investigative panel interviewed her only once.

Riken, which had sponsored her research, said it would address the appeal in accordance with its rule after it is examined by the investigative panel.

Last week, Riken’s investigative committee concluded there were two instances of “research misconduct” by the researcher, who was the lead author of two papers on the new method to create pluripotent stem cells published in the British science journal Nature in January.

Obokata said in a statement released April 1 that she would file an appeal with Riken over its investigative committee’s accusations of fabrication and falsification in the articles.

“I cannot possibly agree with the decision that the two ‘unmalicious mistakes’ have been judged to amount to fabrication and falsification,” Obokata responded the same day.

According to Riken’s regulations, “mistakes made without malice” do not constitute “research misconduct.”

Meanwhile, on Monday, Riken announced the details of a planned yearlong attempt led by Hitoshi Niwa to verify Obokata’s work on STAP cells.

During the news conference in Tokyo, Niwa, who advised Obokata on her STAP cell papers, said he was initially convinced of their existence on the basis of experiments he’d seen Obokata carry out three times.

However, the veteran stem cell researcher now says he has doubts, which led him to attempt to verify her work.

“I decided to take part in the verification experiments to know whether (STAP cells) exist,” Niwa told reporters, adding it is his responsibility as one of the co-authors of the papers to do so.

While he now agrees the papers should be retracted, Niwa stressed he would conduct the experiments “without prejudgment.”

To the best of his knowledge, there was nothing odd about the data used in the papers, he said.

Riken’s investigative committee cleared Niwa of misconduct, saying he took part in the writing of the papers at a late stage.

Information from Jiji added