Suicide of STAP paper co-author jolts researchers at Riken


Researchers at the Riken institute’s Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) are reeling from the recent suicide of Yoshiki Sasai

Sasai was deputy director at the center and played a central role in writing the controversial STAP cell papers that were subsequently retracted from a prestigious academic journal.

“I cannot concentrate on research,” said one scientist.

Riken is expected to face difficulties in its efforts to verity whether stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells really exist, and has yet to decide whether to scrap the CDB, as demanded by a reform panel of outside experts.

Many people who knew Sasai, a world-renowned scientist in the field of regeneration medicine, say he was honest and enthusiastic about nurturing young researchers.

He was “a valuable talent with an incomparable sense of management and negotiation skills among scientists,” said a former senior official at the CDB who had worked with Sasai since the Kobe’s facility inception in 2000.

“I was thinking that nobody other than Sasai would be suitable to become the next CDB director.”

The former official said he advised Sasai to step down as he appeared exhausted having to deal with the scandal involving the STAP cell papers.

One laboratory leader in his 50s, who cooperated with Sasai in writing the papers, heard him say around March that he wanted to dispel suspicions about the papers, which were co-authored by embattled stem-cell biologist Haruko Obokata and published in the British science journal Nature in January.

“I suppose he could not forgive himself for not being able to prevent the fuss,” the lab leader said in a trembling voice.

Lab leaders have been getting together to discuss how to restore confidence in the government-backed institute.

But as one young lab leader put it, “I fear that nothing will go right as public opinion remains highly critical.”

Many researchers are considering changing jobs, with the future of the center up in the air, the young leader said.

Riken is expected to decide in late August about whether to scrap the CDB.

Another leader in his 50s said: “I will not hesitate to cooperate to prevent any misconduct, but I want Riken not to rob its members of the environment that allows them to freely engage in research.”