Vexed Riken halts Obokata’s bid to prove stem cell discovery

Disgraced researcher Obokata announces her resignation

by

Staff Writer

Riken announced Friday that it will halt any further attempts to replicate the supposedly ground-breaking stem cell production method one of its researchers claimed to have discovered earlier this year.

The technique, dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), garnered international attention after two research papers on the subject were published in the prestigious journal Nature last January before being retracted months later.

Riken also said Friday it had accepted a resignation letter dated Dec. 21 from Haruko Obokata, the discredited 31-year-old scientist who was the lead author of the papers.

The papers in question claimed to outline a simple but revolutionary way to generate stem cells, which are capable of developing into any type of tissue.

However, falsified data and other fabrication attempts emerged that led the state-backed research institute to set up a team in April to verify the findings. The team was headed by fellow Riken researcher Hitoshi Niwa, who co-authored the papers.

In July, Obokata agreed to retract the papers and began her own experiments at Riken with a third party present to replicate her work using genetically manipulated spleen cells of mice that glow green if a gene indicative of pluripotency is activated.

Riken said Obokata conducted the experiments nearly 50 times and managed to create green-glowing cells, but only at a rate considered very low, meaning the experiments failed, a Riken spokesman said at a press conference in Tokyo.

The spokesman said that after the institute learned of the failure at the end of November, it decided to end the verification attempts, which were originally scheduled to last until next March. The Riken team made a preliminary announcement in August that it had not yet succeeded in replicating the research results.

Niwa admitted that having had no doubt about the data might have been the problem in the first place, but said that he “believed” in the data released by Obokata and co-author Teruhiko Wakayama of Yamanashi University, and that he had faith in science being based on “belief in the inherent goodness of men.”

Obokata was not present at the press conference but she released a statement on Friday saying that she “regrets” the result of the verification experiments.

Obokata said she had to conduct the experiments in an environment that had “far more constraints” than she ever imagined. Obokata was confined in a room to do the experiments and was constantly monitored by camera.

She said she was making a desperate effort to gain satisfactory results under whatever conditions were provided, and that she tried her best, “beyond the limits of the soul.”

“I’m just totally shattered and very perplexed by the results,” she said.

  • Shinsakan

    This article does not mention that STAP cells also could not be replicated by any other lab in the world and that many scientists were skeptical even before the fabrication and misconduct surfaced. It also does not mention that the implications of the discovery for regenerative medicine were much less than that suggested by the media; this was interesting but really not “ground-breaking” or “revolutionary.”

  • Ahojanen

    Riken should have let Obokata go much earlier around the springtime when a fabrication in its procedure had been confirmed. Such a swift move could have also prevented Sasahi, a prominent scholar and Obokata’s supervisor from committing a suicide.

    The question as to whether STAP cells exist is NOT the core issue. Obokata had already bleached scientific procedure and publication guideline at multiple points, not to mention ethical issues. She would deserve a penalty even though she by any chance succeeded in making a STAP cell (which is highly unlikely, though).

    • Shinsakan

      I agree with you. But really, Obokata should not have been hired in the first place. She did not have the track record to be a PI.

  • SlightlyDisappointed0

    So. now that this hell is over let’s make a quick recap of all mishaps so far to see just how shameless this woman has been:

    – inconsistencies between the DNA of the test mices right from the get go
    – ridiculously few research papers for as “groundbreaking” a discovery as this, poorly written, lacking in fundamental details and sometimes resembling high school doodles than actual scientist notes, complete with heart marks and all, as many newspapers duly noted
    – vats of “rival” ES cells discovered in the lab’s refrigerators
    – incidentally, over 20 pages of Obokata’s PhD thesis turned out to be a copy & paste of text found on the homepage of some American university, undermining not only the credibility of the STAP research but also Obokata’s credentials as a scientist
    – still a huge question mark on the usage of part of the research fund, some of which are rumored to have been looted by Obokata for her own private merryamaking

    All of Obokata’s dishonesty, compulsive lies and much more eventually resulted in.
    – Riken suffering a shrinking on scientific personnel and a cutback on government funds for the foreeseable time
    – at least one of Obokata’s associates going on an indefinite hiatus for unspecified reasons following the withdrawal of the Nature article
    – her supervisor, a giften and talented man unlike her, committing suicide also shortly after the withdrawal
    – Shinzo Abe’s program for more female involvement in positions of power, as well as the Rikejo program, being damaged beyond salvation

    And to add insult to the injury, today during the press conference (in which Obokata didn’t even deign to show up) it was also reported that:
    – Obokata has already submitted her resignation papers, which have been promptly accepted and will go effective by tomorrow. This would be a good news on the surface, if not for the fact that by resigning, the disciplinary measures that Riken planned for her no longer apply, basically enabling her to escape from this mess unpunished (what a shrewd female specimen she is!)
    – in spite of everything, one of her “friends”, doctor Aizawa, even had the brazenness to take the mic and complain that Obokata received a “criminal treatment” during the tests, just because they had her perform under surveillance cameras

    As someone who followed the development of this STAP fraud news after
    news, it’s absolutely amazing how much leniency this woman has been
    given despite everyone fully knowing what was going to happen next. If
    this were China or any other third world country with serious issues
    concerning education and corruption, it would strike as no surprise but
    this is one of those times I wonder how they could have kept this farce
    up for so long.
    Some people love to whine about Japan being “sexist”, by cherrypicking anecdotes and twisting them so as to suit their “social justice” warrior’s narrative, but overprotracted farces like this make me rather wonder if it’ll ever come the day when females will face responsabilites like their male colleagues and will be punished equally without fear of anyone being called out for “misogynia”.

    Because this is essentally the reason they kept being so clement on her for months, to everyone’s loss.

    • Shinsakan

      Well-said and well-summarized- I agree with you.

      Just two things: the person who went on indefinite hiatus was actually Obokata’s mentor, who was the person who came up with the idea for STAP cells in the first place and recruited Obokata for the project.

      Also, RIKEN has suggested that they are still planning to subject her to some kind of sanctions even though she is no longer working for them. Not sure how that works, though.

    • Shinsakan

      Well-said and well-summarized- I agree with you.

      Just two things: the person who went on indefinite hiatus was actually Obokata’s mentor, who was the person who came up with the idea for STAP cells in the first place and recruited Obokata for the project.

      Also, RIKEN has suggested that they are still planning to subject her to some kind of sanctions even though she is no longer working for them. Not sure how that works, though.