‘STAP cells’ claimed by Obokata were likely embryonic stem cells

by

Staff Writer

An investigative panel under the state-backed Riken research institute said Friday that the debunked STAP cells generated by one of its scientists were likely created instead from embryonic stem cells.

It also said it identified two further instances of research misconduct by the lead author of the reports, Haruko Obokata.

The panel “concluded STAP stem cells . . . were derived from ES cells, based on examinations of the remaining samples,” Isao Katsura, director general of the National Institute of Genetics and head of the seven-member panel, told reporters in Tokyo.

“The papers’ core claims are refuted, since the introduction of ES cells was indicated,” Katsura said.

Katsura said tissuelike growths known as teratomas and artificially created, or chimeric, mice claimed to have been grown from STAP cells were probably grown from ES cells instead. The formation of teratomas and chimeras is considered key to proving the existence of pluripotent stem cells, biological building blocks that can be coaxed into developing into any type of tissue.

However, the panel was unable to determine who introduced the embryonic stem cells, and whether it happened deliberately or by accident, citing insufficient evidence.

Moreover, the panel, which had been investigating the two papers on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency published in the British science journal Nature, found two more instances of research misconduct by Obokata in connection with data in one of the papers.

“We concluded Obokata fabricated data for two charts on the growth curves of (‘STAP’) cells and DNA methylation,” Katsura said.

A separate Riken panel earlier this year found two separate instances of misconduct. Those findings, and related allegations, prompted Riken to set up the panel headed by Katsura in September. Obokata resigned from the institute on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Katsura cleared Teruhiko Wakayama and Hitoshi Niwa, two co-authors, of misconduct. He added that the panel did not investigate Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author who had overseen Obokata’s writing and who committed suicide in August.

The papers published in Nature in January said the researchers had managed to reprogram adult mice cells as pluripotent cells by simply soaking them in mildly acidic liquid.

Discrepancies were soon alleged, and in July the journal retracted the reports.

After a news conference by the panel, Riken President Ryoji Noyori issued a statement apologizing for the loss of trust caused by the scandal.

He said Riken’s disciplinary committee will resume its work. It was set up in May in after the scandal broke but has remained dormant pending the outcome of the probe.

Mutsuhiro Arinobu, Riken’s executive director in charge of compliance, declined to comment on who could be penalized, saying it is up to the disciplinary committee to decide that.

Meanwhile, Maki Kawai, executive director in charge of research affairs at Riken, said it had been unable to reach Obokata, and thus had not conveyed its findings to her.

  • rossdorn

    Seems that unlike comfort women, STAP cells did not exist…

    Oh, Japan….

  • Steve Jackman

    Insularity breeds delusion. Take note, Japan!

  • GBR48

    This is the equivalent of investigating the sinking of the Titanic and determining that it was down to water.

    It seems that Riken’s ability to conduct an investigation is as poor as its general oversight.

    No scientist conducts such a ground-breaking experiment once and then publishes without replicating it to check their results with a control, so anything untoward would have to have taken place repeatedly.

    No scientist fakes an experiment and then publishes, as the first thing every other scientist in the field would do, is attempt to replicate the results.

    And if you think Obokata was young, she was old enough to sterilise a pipette. Marie Curie was isolating Polonium at that age. Was her experiment sabotaged? What are the responses of those involved? Did the co-authors not replicate or witness the work? They are ‘co-responsible’ for the paper and would no doubt have claimed their share of the glory. Was Obokata pressurised to publish what amounted to ‘lab work in progress’ that had not been fully checked?

    Was it really just a case of seeing fluorescence and then publishing without doing the most basic checks that an undergraduate would be expected to carry out?

    So Riken, go back and do your investigation again, and this time do it properly so you can tell the world what really happened. If you aren’t capable of that, get a third party to do it.

    And being Japan, the friends of those involved might like to keep a close eye on them. This farce has already cost the life of one person, which is one too many.

    • phu

      It seems that Riken’s ability to conduct an investigation is as poor as its general oversight.

      To me, the true comedy here is that they were trusted to investigate themselves. Clearly it wasn’t working in the first place.

      Scapegoating and then crucifying Obokata, whilst letting everyone else off the hook is not an option here.

      It is, it’s just not a good one… and the ideal result is that Obokata gets some sort of punishment, which she deserves, and also that whoever else was supposed to be involved sees some appropriate negative attention.

    • KenjiAd

      No scientist fakes an experiment and then publishes, as the first thing
      every other scientist in the field would do, is attempt to replicate the
      results.

      With all due respect, what you said above is not true. I would refer you to an old, but extremely insightful book entitled “Betrayers of truth (1983)” by William Broad and Nicholas Wade, both respected science writers at New York Times at that time.

      One of their main observations on scientific misconducts is that scientific fraud is almost never brought to light by the internal checking mechanisms of science.

      In the Obokata case, the now-almost-certain fraud passed through the supposed checking by all the collaborators, including Obokata’s bosses, through peer view by experts in the field, despite the fact that Obokata actually had no data to support her conclusion.

      Another thing I, as a former scientist myself, would like to point out is that it’s largely a myth that scientists are guided by objective interpretation of the data. Scientists, when doing experiments, almost always have a pre-existing idea about how the results should look like. When the results don’t conform to what they should look like, the first inclination of scientists is to dismiss the results (“bad results”).

      So what might some scientists do if they keep repeating the experiments but still can’t get what they want? They change the data to fit them to what should look like. This is the most common type of scientific misconducts.

      There are two main reasons for why this happens. One, as you pointed out, there is a tremendous pressure to publish. Scientists are no different from professional athletes under pressure to produce (and take illegal drugs).

      And two, remember this. These scientists actually “know” how the results should look like. So cutting and pasting the image data like Obokata did, for example, isn’t a fraud at all in their mind. Just like Obokata admitted, they are simply making the results look nicer.

      Finally, however, I do agree with you that Obokata was scapegoated. In my opinion, the biggest blame should be placed on all those guys who used her hoping to advance their career and to obtain a big funding. Now they (except one who killed himself) threw her under the bus. They should come out and admit their own failure.

      • GBR48

        Points taken. It feels a lot like cold fusion. What I was trying to suggest is that scientists do not, as a rule, simply make stuff up and then publish it. They have usually convinced themselves and believe in their own results, rather than simply being fraudsters. That’s the point where the oversight kicks in and checks are made before publication, and why Obokata should not be the sole focus of excessive media condemnation and hung out to dry, when more senior figures have failed and are not punished.

        This sort of thing happens in science -scientists are human and as given to enthusiasm and optimism as the rest of us – and its why the procedures are (or should be) in place to check discoveries before they become public news.

        Having failed in its original duty of oversight, Riken appears to have compounded this by failing to rapidly work out exactly what went wrong, why it went wrong, and then explain it to the world. Dragging it out the way they have done has only made things worse for all concerned.

        In situations like this, a little bit of competency goes a long way.

      • KenjiAd

        I agree with you completely. Self-deception is a fairly common problem in science, definitely more common than scientists themselves admit publicly.

        Training in objective interpretation can be helpful but will be an incomplete defense against the desire to obtain particular results. This is because ‘scientists’ are a professional career, not glorified amateurs. They need to produce.

        In the Riken case, as a former scientist, I am very much disturbed by what I clearly see – an attempt to portray this case as some kind of isolated incident carried out by an overzealous evil researcher who didn’t know what she was doing.

        That characterization is hardly the case. Obokata is nothing but an emblem of the culture of scientific communities, not just in Japan but also elsewhere – namely, rush to publish incomplete results, in order to obtain funding and career promotions. The current system actually rewards and encourages such irresponsible behavior.

        Unfortunately, many scientists are in self-denial, preferring to think that scientific communities can detect misconducts. No they can’t, because the current system is such that sloppy experimenters would get more reward than careful, honest ones, at least in short-term. Most frauds will not get caught, especially “minor” ones like massaging the data to ft them to the conclusion.