STAP paper co-author Sasai commits suicide

Kyodo, AP, Staff Report

Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author of controversial research papers on so-called STAP cells, committed suicide at an institute of the government-affiliated Riken in Kobe, police said Tuesday.

Sasai, 52, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe and an adviser to scandal-hit Riken scientist Haruko Obokata, 30, was confirmed dead after being found hanged from a stairway handrail at the center, the police said.

He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and a pair of slacks. His shoes were off, placed together on the landing of the staircase.

Satoru Kagaya, head of public relations at Riken, said at a news conference that at least one apparent suicide note was found on the desk used by Sasai’s secretary, as well as three other notes left near the body.

One of the notes, addressed to Obokata, read, “Be sure to reproduce STAP cells,” sources revealed later in the day.

Kagaya said earlier he could not disclose to whom the suicide notes were addressed, “considering the deep sorrow that Sasai’s family must be feeling at this point.”

Kagaya noted that when he talked to Sasai over the phone several times in May and June, he seemed to have been “tired both mentally and physically.” Kagaya said he felt something was wrong in the way Sasai talked, and that he seemed to have less energy than before.

Sasai’s colleagues at Riken said he had been receiving mental counseling since the scandal surrounding papers on STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells, which was lead-authored by Obokata, came to light earlier this year.

Kagaya added that Sasai was hospitalized for nearly a month in March due to psychological stress related to the scandal, but that he “recovered and had not been hospitalized since.”

A series of allegations surfaced over the credibility of two papers on STAP cells that were published in British science journal Nature in January but then were retracted in July.

Sasai supervised Obokata’s writing. A Riken investigative committee has said Sasai bore heavy responsibility for not confirming data for the STAP study and for Obokata’s misconduct.

Obokata is now engaged in experiments at Riken to verify the findings of the research.

Sasai’s team retracted the research papers from Nature over Obokata’s alleged malpractice, which she has contested.

Retractions of papers in major scientific journals are rare, and the scandal was a major embarrassment to Japan’s scientific research.

In two papers published earlier this year in the journal Nature, the researchers reported that they successfully transformed ordinary mouse cells into versatile stem cells by exposing them to a mildly acidic environment. Scientists hope to harness stem cells to grow replacement tissue for treating a variety of diseases.

Riken later held Obokata responsible for falsifying data. The investigation also focused on Sasai and two other employees, though the three were not accused of research misconduct.

Sasai had said he was “deeply ashamed” over the problems in the papers.

  • guest

    unbelievable. Some of my Japanese co-workers understand why he did it, but such mindset is way out of my league. Given the circumstances, such suicide never justifies anything. Especially when leaving a wife and children behind and with the potential devastating consequences for Obokata.

  • SlightlyDisappointed

    It’s amazing that by this point they’re giving Obokata a second chance to redeem herself by letting her repeat the experiments under the supervisions of another team. The level of incompetence shown by this woman so far are something astounding: the inconsistent DNA in test mice, the copypasted photos that should have proven the existence of STAP cells instead, the insufficient research papers that look more like highschool doodles (heart marks and all!), the container of IPS cells found inside the lab’s freezer, 20 or so pages of her PhD thesis stolen verbatim from the homepage of some US university.
    This STAP controversy is only dragging Japan’s scientific credibility and the whole Rikejo program into the mud, and apparently it’s starting to claim its first victims.
    I hope that the absurd idea of forced gender egalitarianism will be the next thing to die.

  • Dan

    Sasai is a great scientist and the suicide is heartbreaking and a big loss to stem cell society.

  • Guest

    What does gender egalitarism has to do with this news or that Obakata is a bad scientist?

  • GBR48

    Nobody has exactly covered themselves in glory here.

    First off, you make sure that your researchers follow globally recognised procedures, particularly on major breakthroughs that are going to make the news. If there is an issue, you deal with it honestly, thoroughly, rapidly and openly. You re-do any experiments with independent scrutiny.

    The media should not have applied the continuous pressure and taken the idol worship/witch hunt line that they have done. And chasing people through traffic to get a quote was absolutely shameful. Back off and start pretending you are civilised human beings. You might get the hang of it.

    Japan does have a problem with suicide, just check the statistics. Every employer, when their employees come under intense pressure, should be aware of this and should be ready to offer support. Japanese companies often tout themselves as ‘families’. Act like it.

    For anyone contemplating this sort of thing, there are always better ways to fix things, even if they are not immediately apparent to you. Talk to someone. Ask for help.

    Life is precious. Suicide is always a tragedy, particularly for those left behind-show some respect and accord the family some privacy.

    Everyone, just wind it down. The media should back off and wait until they have something to report.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Seriously Japan Times – comments open for this article??? Really??? Have you no journalistic integrity???