Obokata breaks silence, suggests colleague bears blame for STAP debacle

by

Staff Writer

A former star scientist with the government-backed Riken research institute who was accused of research fraud after the debunking of high-profile work on STAP cells in 2014 is ready to tell her side of the story.

In a book relating her ordeal, Haruko Obokata insists she was at least partially successful in creating cells that have the potential to turn into any kind of body tissue.

“I sincerely apologize for causing a huge uproar to society, following the publication of papers on STAP cells,” she writes in the book’s foreword. “I truly feel miserable and sorry for not being able to offer my heartfelt regret and apology to the public. … But I think I would choose to become a researcher again if I am allowed to start my life all over.”

The book is titled “Ano Hi” (“That Day”) and is published by Kodansha. It will hit bookstores on Thursday.

Obokata was formally fired by Riken in February last year after its investigative panel was unable to replicate her research into the production of STAP cells, or those that have stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

What is potentially most contentious about the 253-page book concerns her association with, and then estrangement from, onetime boss Teruhiko Wakayama, a former Riken researcher who now teaches at Yamanashi University. Obokata asserts in the book that crucial parts of the STAP experiments were handled only by Wakayama and alleges that he changed his accounts of how the STAP cells were produced.

An investigative panel under Riken concluded in December 2014 that what researchers originally claimed were STAP cells, were likely ES cells. It failed to determine whether the ES cells were introduced by accident or deliberately.

Obokata claims in the book that she was “framed” as the individual who mixed in ES cells. She said she received the cells used in the experiments from Wakayama, and directs suspicions at him instead.

She describes how she found herself overwhelmed by negative media coverage and lost the mental strength to issue rebuttals amid the slew of allegations of misconduct and data manipulation following the publication of two STAP papers in Nature in January 2014.

In a statement, Kodansha said the book is an important record by someone whose side of the story has not yet been heard.

“We think it’s meaningful to publish the views of Ms. Obokata herself to investigate the causes of confusion over the STAP cells,” it said.

In January 2014, in an announcement that turned Obokata into a celebrity overnight, a team of Japanese and U.S. researchers led by Obokata claimed they had succeeded in reprogramming adult cells of mice into pluripotent cells by simply soaking them in mildly acidic liquid.

But a series of allegations, including the fabrication of data, led to the papers being retracted in July that year.

A month later, as the controversy escalated, Yoshiki Sasai, a former mentor and co-author of the study, committed suicide.

Obokata received a disciplinary discharge by Riken in February 2015.

  • KenjiAd

    Bad science with misogynist twist from the very beginning to the end (if “end” really exists). Riken and two prominent researchers, Yakayama and Sasai, made her a star because she was a young good-looking female.

    The Japanese media, whose reporters had absolutely no knowledge of the science involved, treated her like a TV star because she was, unlike stereotypical scientist, media-ready and presentable on TV.

    When the allegation started, Riken turned around and started distributing the information that would eventually crucify Obokata without pointing fingers at the other, more senior researchers who happen to be guys.

    The Japanese media in turn joined public lynching of Obokata, some weekly mags even alleging her sexual advances towards male supervisors, a textbook example of stupid, misogynist “reporting.”

    In the end, no one felt that Obokata should be given a benefit of doubt. Why? Because she is a woman.

    Don’t get me wrong. There are numerous, albeit indirect evidences, all pointing to the idea that contamination of ES cells was caused intentionally. Yet, there is no way to prove that she had done it. You can’t destroy someone’s life just because of suspicion. That was totally unfair.

    But, that’s what happened, and as a former scientist, I am absolutely appalled by the fact that apparently no scientists in Japan defended her.

    • Shinsakan

      I agree that there is no way to prove that she is the one who contaminated the ES cells (although it is very hard to believe that it could be someone else…and even if it were someone else, then why couldn’t the findings be replicated anywhere else, or even by herself?). However, she is the one who recycled an unrelated image from her dissertation and presented it as something else. For the things that she was actually found to be guilty of doing (and thus fired from RIKEN for) and the things that actually triggered the retraction of the papers, she was clearly the one who did it. While the media and the opportunism of RIKEN are partly to blame, her own involvement cannot be denied and excuses should not be made for it. Also, by the same argument that fingers should not be pointed without proof, there is no proof of wrongdoing by Wakayama or Sasai, and as she was the one performing (and responsible for) the cell experiments, there would be no reason for them to doubt her or independently check her findings. Trying to mask this as a case of misogyny (even though mysogyny does exist in laboratories) diverts attention away from the fact that she also bears grave responsibility. Furthermore, gender bias cuts both ways- it may have led to heavier criticism of her once misconduct was discovered, but it may have also led to her rise in the first place (would RIKEN have hired such an unexperienced, undistinguished investigator as a PI if the person in question was male and not cute in a kappogi?). However, I totally agree with you regarding the dismal reporting of this in the mass media in Japan from the beginning…they overstated the discovery and impact of STAP, and then they brutalized what they artificially built up.

    • Shinsakan

      I agree that there is no way to prove that she is the one who contaminated the ES cells (although it is very hard to believe that it could be someone else…and even if it were someone else, then why couldn’t the findings be replicated anywhere else, or even by herself?). However, she is the one who recycled an unrelated image from her dissertation and presented it as something else. For the things that she was actually found to be guilty of doing (and thus fired from RIKEN for) and the things that actually triggered the retraction of the papers, she was clearly the one who did it. While the media and the opportunism of RIKEN are partly to blame, her own involvement cannot be denied and excuses should not be made for it. Also, by the same argument that fingers should not be pointed without proof, there is no proof of wrongdoing by Wakayama or Sasai, and as she was the one performing (and responsible for) the cell experiments, there would be no reason for them to doubt her or independently check her findings. Trying to mask this as a case of misogyny (even though mysogyny does exist in laboratories) diverts attention away from the fact that she also bears grave responsibility. Furthermore, gender bias cuts both ways- it may have led to heavier criticism of her once misconduct was discovered, but it may have also led to her rise in the first place (would RIKEN have hired such an unexperienced, undistinguished investigator as a PI if the person in question was male and not cute in a kappogi?). However, I totally agree with you regarding the dismal reporting of this in the mass media in Japan from the beginning…they overstated the discovery and impact of STAP, and then they brutalized what they artificially built up.

    • Shinsakan

      I agree that there is no way to prove that she is the one who contaminated the ES cells (although it is very hard to believe that it could be someone else…and even if it were someone else, then why couldn’t the findings be replicated anywhere else, or even by herself?). However, she is the one who recycled an unrelated image from her dissertation and presented it as something else. For the things that she was actually found to be guilty of doing (and thus fired from RIKEN for) and the things that actually triggered the retraction of the papers, she was clearly the one who did it. While the media and the opportunism of RIKEN are partly to blame, her own involvement cannot be denied and excuses should not be made for it. Also, by the same argument that fingers should not be pointed without proof, there is no proof of wrongdoing by Wakayama or Sasai, and as she was the one performing (and responsible for) the cell experiments, there would be no reason for them to doubt her or independently check her findings. Trying to mask this as a case of misogyny (even though mysogyny does exist in laboratories) diverts attention away from the fact that she also bears grave responsibility. Furthermore, gender bias cuts both ways- it may have led to heavier criticism of her once misconduct was discovered, but it may have also led to her rise in the first place (would RIKEN have hired such an unexperienced, undistinguished investigator as a PI if the person in question was male and not cute in a kappogi?). However, I totally agree with you regarding the dismal reporting of this in the mass media in Japan from the beginning…they overstated the discovery and impact of STAP, and then they brutalized what they artificially built up.

      • KenjiAd

        This might surprise you, but what Obokata has done (plagiarism and “fudging” the data) is not uncommon in scientific research, definitely more common than the general public is led to believe. It’s well known that even Gregor Mendel (Father of Genetics) most likely “enhanced” his data, because his data are statistically too good to be true.

        I’m pretty sure that Obotaka didn’t suddenly start manipulating data or lifting someone else’s texts into her paper at RIKEN. Most likely, she started doing it in graduate school. Her phD adviser should have caught her troubling habit. Alas, most faculties never read phD thesis anyway, her plagiarism in her phD thesis of course would have gotten a free pass.

        It’s a great injustive for Waseda to cancel her phD, without applying the equal level of scrutiny to all the other phDs. Why did they target only Obokata? If they had investigated all other phD thesis, I’m fairly certain that they would discover plagiarism in many of them. Japanese graduate students are typically not good at writing in English at all, so it’s easier for them to just cut and paste.

        I disagree that Wakayama/Sasai are not guilty. Once you put your name into a scientific publication that turned out to be a probable forgery, you are guilty.

        While it’s not entirely easy to catch a determined researcher who intentionally spike the materials (in this case, cell lines), these two are very experienced scientists. They should have known something not quite right; they should have “smelled” something fishy.

        In fact, I believe they actually became a victim of their own conformation bias. While they might have felt that the data seemed too good to be true, they wanted them to be true. Why not? All the money and fame were at stake, and they never wanted to “waste” their time to make sure they were decent data.

        They all jumped into the STAP-cell wagon with a pretty young female on the spotlight.

        I wonder what got into their head, when they organized a press conference to announce the discovery of STAP cells. That was crazy. You don’t do that in science.

      • Shinsakan

        I know how common “fudging data” is in science. I was actually a postdoc at BWH at the same time that Obokata was there (I did not know her or know of her, though). However, this is not a matter of “fudging data.” This is taking a figure from an entirely unrelated study that she used for her thesis and claiming that it shows pluripotency of STAP cells when it was not even about STAP cells. I caught someone doing the same thing once when I was peer reviewing for a journal, and the consequences were severe. The difference in that case was that I caught them before it was published.

        As for canceling Obokata’s PhD, just because everyone else is plagiarizing doesn’t make it o.k. I got a speeding ticket once and tried the same excuse on the police officer- “why did you single me out? Everyone else was speeding and I was just following the flow of traffic.” The police officer told me “It doesn’t matter. You still broke the law.” He was right. Obokata attracted attention to herself by publishing in a high-impact journal, so if something bad happens, the consequences will also be worse. Furthermore, they gave her a chance to correct her thesis, and she chose not to.

        As for Wakayama and Sasai, yes, in principle all authors are responsible for the content of a paper. However, in reality, this is often really not the case, as it is often one or two postdocs doing almost all of the work with the senior personnel mostly coming up with ideas, giving feedback, and in particular writing the paper (especially in Japanese labs). If that postdoc presents data to the senior faculty, those data are generally trusted at face value unless there is a really good reason for them not to be. In this particular case, why exactly would Wakayama and Sasai have been skeptical or “smelled something fishy?” Why would they have a reason to think that the claimed STAP cells were really ES cells? Obokata was already coming vetted from the Vacanti lab that came up with the STAP concept, so it’s not like she was presenting this to them out of nowhere. Also the whole point was that STAP cells make ES-like colonies (and are thus difficult to distinguish from ES cells). Therefore, it should be no surprise that other than the obvious data manipulation problems with the manuscript, really big red flags didn’t start to go up until nobody else (including Wakayama) was able to replicate the findings. That was when Wakayama did indeed “smell something fishy” – he also called attention to the problems with the paper and he was the one who suggested that it should be retracted, which means that he did indeed take responsibility.

        I do agree with you about confirmation bias, though, although it may have less to do with individual money and fame (Drs. Sasai and Wakayama were already famous) and more with political aspects and promoting RIKEN. Same thing for the press conference- I think that was probably RIKEN’s doing and not the individual researchers. Press conferences are becoming more and more popular in science for “big” discoveries (look, for example at the blizzard of press releases for CRISPR systems from the Broad Institute and MIT) because funding for scientific research is inadequate and the institutions thus want to put their best foot forward to attract more funds.

      • KenjiAd

        … taking a figure from an entirely unrelated study that she used for her
        thesis and claiming that it shows pluripotency of STAP cells when it was
        not even about STAP cells.

        I’m not defending her doing that. All I’m saying is that many researchers are doing that, which you sound like not refuting. And I think you also know why they are doing this.

        Of course she was wrong in doing this, and the fact that many other scientists do the same, doesn’t excuse her act at all. But it does point to a bigger picture of what the real problem is. Her case is not an isolated incident of some nutty scientist.

        As a scientist yourself, you know how “real” science works. We most often know how our results should look like. If our experiments didn’t produce what we wanted, there would be a strong temptation to select/make/borrow/whatever the results we need.

        That temptation used to be just a desire to obtain fame. But now, temptation has a lot to do with professional survival. If you can’t get the “right” results, you may die as a professional scientist. I’m sure you know what I mean.

        In Obokata’s mind set, it really doesn’t matter where the picture comes from, because the picture shows what the result should look like. I don’t even believe that she feels she had cheated.

        That “mind set” is the crux of the matter in my opinion.

        As to what Waseda did, I still disagree with you. I don’t think the speeding ticket analogy is valid here; for speeding, you are talking about random check. The police isn’t specifically targeting you. What if the police in your country starts checking only how fast you drive, ignoring all other drivers? Would you still think it’s fair?

        In this particular case, why exactly would Wakayama and Sasai have been
        skeptical or “smelled something fishy?” Why would they have a reason to
        think that the claimed STAP cells were really ES cells? Obokata was
        already coming in vetted from the Vacanti lab that came up with the STAP
        concept, so it’s not like she was presenting this to them out of
        nowhere.

        I’m not an expert in cell biology, so I can’t really say I know what I’m talking about, OK? :-)

        Still, in my former field of expertise, I was able to sense something fishy. Perhaps not always, I admit, but most of the time.

        How did I know that? It’s quite simple, actually. Something “fishy” is a kind of claim/result that breaks some conventional laws in the field (let’s say paradigm). If your result apparently breaks the conventional laws, it can be good news or bad news, but never be boring news.

        Good news is that you’ve found something new. bad news is that your result is likely wrong.

        Now I’m not a cell biologist, but Obokata’s claim really defines the stem-cell paradigm. If it’s so easy to reprogram developed cells (just by dipping them into a kind of soda), why no one has found it yet? All kinds of questions would have to be answered (telomere, etc).

        And remember that her first manuscript was rejected; one reviewer reportedly told her that this just can’t happen.

        Her results were so extraordinary; no one other than her had done it yet; and this experiment was being done by a relatively inexperienced, ambitious, beginning investigator… – don’t you think it smells “fishy”?

        Drs Wakayama/Sasai aren’t stupid, you know.

      • Shinsakan

        Not defending any of it, but I think that there is a difference between cheats where the phenomenon could still be real (e.g., running an experiment 5 times and choosing the replicate that actually works / finding a way to fudge the analysis (like picking and choosing the statistics to use or excluding outliers) / amplifying the immunoreactivity signal on a minor, mechanistic experiment) and making up crucial, core data altogether where there is no reason at all to believe that the phenomenon is real. At least in the stem cell field, I think that the former is common, whereas the latter is rare because everyone knows that the field is hot and totally non-reproducible findings, especially core findings, will be easily exposed when nobody else can replicate. That is why people working in this field felt that what Obokata did was so brazen

        As for detecting fishy data, as I mentioned below, Dezawa’s group had already published a kind of stimulus-induced or stimulus-selected pluripotency in PNAS that was not so different from what Obokata and Vacanti were proposing (also acid-induced). STAP really wasn’t unbelievably extraordinary or new; similar concepts had been around (although controversial). Also, she was working under the supervision of Vacanti, who was well-known in the tissue engineering field (his brother basically founded the field with Dr. Langer) and with the Harvard name attached. They only brought in Sasai and Wakayama after STAP had been “established” to validate it. Perhaps Sasai and Wakayama should have been more suspicious, but at the same time, I could see how they could be convinced, considering that not only Obokata but also Vacanti was already presenting it as fact. The initial data were based on fluorescence- that is easy to fake or misinterpret. Also, there would be no way to know whether the cells are ES cells or STAP cells without a targeted analysis like the one that was eventually done- the whole point is that STAP cells resemble ES cells. Cell line contamination is actually not infrequent and has sunk other papers as well (although in such cases it is more about a particular cell line outproliferating a different cell line and thus more likely to be accidental). Perhaps they should have done such an analysis at the time to confirm the identity of the cells, but I can still see why they wouldn’t- they already have good reason to believe that STAP exists based on all the previous data they presented, so why wouldn’t they believe that they are getting STAP cells for their experiments?

      • Shinsakan

        Also, I should add that getting pulled over by the police was not a random check. I drive a flashy car that attracts attention, so there is indeed a parallel!

      • KenjiAd

        … as it is often
        one or two postdocs doing almost all of the work with the senior
        personnel mostly coming up with ideas, giving feedback, and in
        particular writing the paper (especially in Japanese labs).

        Same everywhere. Usually the PI does nothing other than writing grants and socializing. Been there, done that, to the point where I got tired. lol

      • Shinsakan

        Me too.

    • Shinsakan

      I agree that there is no way to prove that she is the one who contaminated the ES cells (although it is very hard to believe that it could be someone else…and even if it were someone else, then why couldn’t the findings be replicated anywhere else, or even by herself?). However, she is the one who recycled an unrelated image from her dissertation and presented it as something else. For the things that she was actually found to be guilty of doing (and thus fired from RIKEN for) and the things that actually triggered the retraction of the papers, she was clearly the one who did it. While the media and the opportunism of RIKEN are partly to blame, her own involvement cannot be denied and excuses should not be made for it. Also, by the same argument that fingers should not be pointed without proof, there is no proof of wrongdoing by Wakayama or Sasai, and as she was the one performing (and responsible for) the cell experiments, there would be no reason for them to doubt her or independently check her findings. Trying to mask this as a case of misogyny (even though mysogyny does exist in laboratories) diverts attention away from the fact that she also bears grave responsibility. Furthermore, gender bias cuts both ways- it may have led to heavier criticism of her once misconduct was discovered, but it may have also led to her rise in the first place (would RIKEN have hired such an unexperienced, undistinguished investigator as a PI if the person in question was male and not cute in a kappogi?). However, I totally agree with you regarding the dismal reporting of this in the mass media in Japan from the beginning…they overstated the discovery and impact of STAP, and then they brutalized what they artificially built up.

    • Mots

      I am an old former researcher who did research both in Japan and in the US. Over the years (especially starting in the 1970’s) the passion for truth gradually became replaced by passion for patents, position, prestige and power. This change was most noticeable in academia where researchers who previously considered commercial considerations such as patents “dirty” and beneath their concern, stopped talking to each other freely due to the need to file patent applications.We used to talk about this change in the 1970’s to 1980’s and wished for the old days before we had to worry about patenting. It has only gotten worse, and particularly in the clinical arts, since then. It is nearly impossible for a hard working humble, passionate seeker of truth to do well in any research environment because the psychopaths (identified as the most “aggressive”) fight like hell to be the one that holds the critical test tube, and get the credit. Now with a patent system that only recognizes “first to file” the boss (most aggressive alpha male typically) can make himself (or herself) the discoverer hero by being the one to decide on the patent application or publication. In the 200+ scientist US R&D outfit I used to worked in, the top manager made sure he was the main inventor on anything that came out, for example. The old US system of “first to invent” helped prevent this problem by giving rights to the real inventor but big companies destroyed that system, arguably so that the US system could be more similar to Japan (and other countries). In a research group where ideas and results are shared easily and built upon by others, it is easy to smother the honest, patient truth seeker without such legal protections. This situation is getting worse and will only change via a general reset. The US public during the last 10 years has turned away from scientific truth and for the most part no longer respects experts with degrees. Young people do not aspire to do what is perceived as “science.” Before the commercial science age (beginning in the 60’s) humble truth seekers followed their passions outside of the public limelight. With the upcoming economic reset (and loss of funding) we likely will return to that condition. The main issue that is ignored is that science is not propaganda and does not work well with self promotion, which is the core problem here.

  • TheDigitalGeek

    I do not read Japanese. What did Obokata have to say about Prof Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School in Boston who maintained belief in SNAP cells at least up to April 2014?

    • Shinsakan

      He did more than maintain belief in STAP- he is the one who came up with the concept as an outgrowth from his previous “SPORE” work. I would be really interested in knowing this as well.

    • Shinsakan

      He did more than maintain belief in STAP- he is the one who came up with the concept as an outgrowth from his previous “SPORE” work. I would be really interested in knowing this as well.

      • KenjiAd

        I don’t really know what Obokata thought of Vacanti, her former supervisor.

        All I know is that he resigned from the department chair position he held at Brigham and took one year sabbatical a few months after retraction of the Nature papers. I don’t know if he came back.

        And I doubt his resignation was totally voluntary.

        Usually in the US, investigation of scientific misconducts is carried out under the veil of secrecy, in part to protect the privacy of those involved and also to protect the investigating institution from likely lawsuits if the content of investigation is leaked.

        Public flogging of Obokata was very unusual. If Obotaka had been in the US, there would have been a team of salivating lawyers worker for her, suing everybody. lol

      • Shinsakan

        He is not back yet. The Boston Globe asked him to comment last September when RIKEN finally confirmed that STAP does not exist, and he said “no comment.”

        You are right about the way that investigation of misconduct is conducted in secrecy, but actually in the US, this system has attracted a lot of criticism. A lot of researchers in the US applauded the way that RIKEN acted quickly and openly (until they wasted money by letting Obokata try to generate STAP cells again).

        I agree that the public flogging was unusual- but the reason why it happened was because the media in Japan had first built her and STAP up into such a big deal, so when it all came tumbling down, the consequences were more severe. I put the blame squarely on the sensationalizing and poor reporting by the Japanese media. In the US media coverage on STAP was much, much less, and so people didn’t care as much when it was exposed as fraudulent. Ideally, it should have just turned out to be like one of the many other papers in Nature whose findings turn out to be not reproducible, for whatever reason…but the initial media coverage made sure that couldn’t happen.

      • Shinsakan

        He is not back yet. The Boston Globe asked him to comment last September when RIKEN finally confirmed that STAP does not exist, and he said “no comment.”

        You are right about the way that investigation of misconduct is conducted in secrecy, but actually in the US, this system has attracted a lot of criticism. A lot of researchers in the US applauded the way that RIKEN acted quickly and openly (until they wasted money by letting Obokata try to generate STAP cells again).

        I agree that the public flogging was unusual- but the reason why it happened was because the media in Japan had first built her and STAP up into such a big deal, so when it all came tumbling down, the consequences were more severe. I put the blame squarely on the sensationalizing and poor reporting by the Japanese media. In the US media coverage on STAP was much, much less, and so people didn’t care as much when it was exposed as fraudulent. Ideally, it should have just turned out to be like one of the many other papers in Nature whose findings turn out to be not reproducible, for whatever reason…but the initial media coverage made sure that couldn’t happen.

      • KenjiAd

        We are actually not disagreeing much, especially about the poor reporting of Japanese media. Perhaps I’m probably a little more sympathetic to Obokata, not about what she did (which is inexcusable), but about the way she was treated by RIKEN, Waseda, and media.

        The way I looked at this debacle is this basically. Many scientists, young and old, famous and not so famous, have gotten away with the sort of thing she probably has done. Yeah, I said it.

        Do I know for sure? No, I don’t. But I’ve seen so many instances of sloppy experiments and selective interpretations in my >20 yrs of scientific career, mostly in academia, that have made me believe that, unfortunately in science these days, honesty could get punished. Reward for cheating is high, whereas the risk of getting caught is increasing low. I’m not saying this is right. I’m just saying the science has become careerism no different from any other job.

        Obokata is just a young, naive, overly aggressive, beginning researcher who grew up in the environment where students and post-docs are expected to produce the results their supervisors wanted. Obokata didn’t create this. Labs at Wadeda, Brigham&Harvard Med, and RIKEN did.

        Obokata was unlucky, because her results were too important for stem-cell researchers to ignore.

        If she was working on, say, some obscure transcription factor in yeast, she would have gotten away with fraud, I’m pretty sure of this. Although reproducibility is an alleged hall-mark of scientific endeavor, in reality, very few scientists would bother trying to replicate someone else’s work. There’s no glory, more importantly, funding, for replicating someone else’s work.

        Even if you were able to replicate, so what? If you couldn’t, who is going to publish your negative results?

        Am I too cynical? :-)

      • KenjiAd

        We are actually not disagreeing much, especially about the poor reporting of Japanese media. Perhaps I’m probably a little more sympathetic to Obokata, not about what she did (which is inexcusable), but about the way she was treated by RIKEN, Waseda, and media.

        The way I looked at this debacle is this basically. Many scientists, young and old, famous and not so famous, have gotten away with the sort of thing she probably has done. Yeah, I said it.

        Do I know for sure? No, I don’t. But I’ve seen so many instances of sloppy experiments and selective interpretations in my >20 yrs of scientific career, mostly in academia, that have made me believe that, unfortunately in science these days, honesty could get punished. Reward for cheating is high, whereas the risk of getting caught is increasing low. I’m not saying this is right. I’m just saying the science has become careerism no different from any other job.

        Obokata is just a young, naive, overly aggressive, beginning researcher who grew up in the environment where students and post-docs are expected to produce the results their supervisors wanted. Obokata didn’t create this. Labs at Wadeda, Brigham&Harvard Med, and RIKEN did.

        Obokata was unlucky, because her results were too important for stem-cell researchers to ignore.

        If she was working on, say, some obscure transcription factor in yeast, she would have gotten away with fraud, I’m pretty sure of this. Although reproducibility is an alleged hall-mark of scientific endeavor, in reality, very few scientists would bother trying to replicate someone else’s work. There’s no glory, more importantly, funding, for replicating someone else’s work.

        Even if you were able to replicate, so what? If you couldn’t, who is going to publish your negative results?

        Am I too cynical? :-)

      • Shinsakan

        I totally agree with you, particularly about careerism, sloppy experiments, selective interpretation, etc. I read somewhere that something like only 1 in 7 high-flying (i.e., Nature or other high-IF journal) studies from academic institutions are actually reproducible by biotech/pharma companies that want to translate them into drugs.

        However, I am less sympathetic to Obokata because she set herself up for a bigger fall by being so aggressive and trying to publish in Nature, taking on a PI position with basically no track record, etc. There’s a saying: “you make your bed, that’s where you lie.” This also goes with the chance of being caught. If you do something wrong, the chances of being caught increase when you take a high profile because more people will be out to get you. Same goes for if you are working in a high-profile institute. Then again, it is hard to imagine how she could have put on the brakes once the train left the station in this case. My own personal guess is that probably initially she really believed that she had found STAP cells because her inexperience and lack of knowledge caused her to mistake autofluorescence of dying cells for reporter gene expression, and perhaps nobody was talking through the results with her or giving her real feedback (Vacanti was a clinician running an entire clinical department). Then, at some point as the excitement spread and they started the collaboration with Sasai and Wakayama to confirm that the cells were indeed pluripotent cells, she probably realized that STAP was not real. However, probably by then, RIKEN had probably already seen her as a potential gold mine and given her the opportunity of a lifetime, so she couldn’t back away without ruining her career…and that is probably when the fraud started. This is just my guess of how it could have happened.

        As for the importance of what she was working on, though, I think that this was overblown by the media. Mari Dezawa had already found a population of pluripotent cells that could be generated or isolated by applying stress, MUSE cells, a couple of years before (although those studies also have their detractors), so this was not exactly a new concept. Furthermore, the STAP procedure only worked for perinatal cells- it did not work for adult cells (until Vacanti later came out and said that it did, with no evidence provided). There was no confirmation that the cells were actually healthy in the genetic or epigenetic sense. This all makes the actual utility questionable.

        The main attraction of her technique was how easy it was supposed to be- which also should have made it extremely easy to replicate and lowered the bar for people attempting to do so. I agree that people don’t usually want to replicate other people’s work, but in cases of a new technique (especially one published in a high-flying journal that has received a lot of publicity), it can be an easy way to get a publication, especially in a lower-tier journal. Plus, people do tend to try to replicate if there is even a possibility of utility as a clinical or research tool- that is why iPS cells and CRISPR-Cas9 were both so quickly reproduced after their initial publication and shown to really work. On the other hand, if you try to replicate a famous, high-flying study and cannot replicate the results, it is still publishable because you are suggesting that this highly publicized technique doesn’t actually work. Maybe it won’t be published in Nature or Science, but it can still be published. Indeed, Drs. Niwa and Aizawa published two papers on negative STAP results in a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Journal. Konno et al. published a paper showing that STAP cells are derived from ES cells in Nature. A big consortium of famous stem cell researchers also published negative STAP data in Nature in de Los Angeles et al.

        So I think that negative results for attempts to replicate famous, high-flying studies are indeed easily publishable (and even fundable- the NIH in the US even has a specific program to fund such studies). People publishing in high-impact journals should know that their work will be subject to more scrutiny and attempts to reproduce- the fame comes with a price. Usually, though, non-reproducible studies and those with questionable data presentation, even in high-impact journals, just fade away after nobody can reproduce them. The reputation of the researchers is bad, but only in the field and not the general public. In this case, the initial media storm and elevation of this work in Japan as a kind of national pride (even to the ridiculous point that people were openly saying it might be Nobel-worthy) made such a quiet exit impossible, and as a result Obokata went down in flames.

      • Shinsakan

        I totally agree with you, particularly about careerism, sloppy experiments, selective interpretation, etc. I read somewhere that something like only 1 in 7 high-flying (i.e., Nature or other high-IF journal) studies from academic institutions are actually reproducible by biotech/pharma companies that want to translate them into drugs.

        However, I am less sympathetic to Obokata because she set herself up for a bigger fall by being so aggressive and trying to publish in Nature, taking on a PI position with basically no track record, etc. There’s a saying: “you make your bed, that’s where you lie.” This also goes with the chance of being caught. If you do something wrong, the chances of being caught increase when you take a high profile because more people will be out to get you. Same goes for if you are working in a high-profile institute. Then again, it is hard to imagine how she could have put on the brakes once the train left the station in this case. My own personal guess is that probably initially she really believed that she had found STAP cells because her inexperience and lack of knowledge caused her to mistake autofluorescence of dying cells for reporter gene expression, and perhaps nobody was talking through the results with her or giving her real feedback (Vacanti was a clinician running an entire clinical department). Then, at some point as the excitement spread and they started the collaboration with Sasai and Wakayama to confirm that the cells were indeed pluripotent cells, she probably realized that STAP was not real. However, probably by then, RIKEN had probably already seen her as a potential gold mine and given her the opportunity of a lifetime, so she couldn’t back away without ruining her career…and that is probably when the fraud started. This is just my guess of how it could have happened.

        As for the importance of what she was working on, though, I think that this was overblown by the media. Mari Dezawa had already found a population of pluripotent cells that could be generated or isolated by applying stress, MUSE cells, a couple of years before (although those studies also have their detractors), so this was not exactly a new concept. Furthermore, the STAP procedure only worked for perinatal cells- it did not work for adult cells (until Vacanti later came out and said that it did, with no evidence provided). There was no confirmation that the cells were actually healthy in the genetic or epigenetic sense. This all makes the actual utility questionable.

        The main attraction of her technique was how easy it was supposed to be- which also should have made it extremely easy to replicate and lowered the bar for people attempting to do so. I agree that people don’t usually want to replicate other people’s work, but in cases of a new technique (especially one published in a high-flying journal that has received a lot of publicity), it can be an easy way to get a publication, especially in a lower-tier journal. Plus, people do tend to try to replicate if there is even a possibility of utility as a clinical or research tool- that is why iPS cells and CRISPR-Cas9 were both so quickly reproduced after their initial publication and shown to really work. On the other hand, if you try to replicate a famous, high-flying study and cannot replicate the results, it is still publishable because you are suggesting that this highly publicized technique doesn’t actually work. Maybe it won’t be published in Nature or Science, but it can still be published. Indeed, Drs. Niwa and Aizawa published two papers on negative STAP results in a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Journal. Konno et al. published a paper showing that STAP cells are derived from ES cells in Nature. A big consortium of famous stem cell researchers also published negative STAP data in Nature in de Los Angeles et al.

        So I think that negative results for attempts to replicate famous, high-flying studies are indeed easily publishable (and even fundable- the NIH in the US even has a specific program to fund such studies). People publishing in high-impact journals should know that their work will be subject to more scrutiny and attempts to reproduce- the fame comes with a price. Usually, though, non-reproducible studies and those with questionable data presentation, even in high-impact journals, just fade away after nobody can reproduce them. The reputation of the researchers is bad, but only in the field and not the general public. In this case, the initial media storm and elevation of this work in Japan as a kind of national pride (even to the ridiculous point that people were openly saying it might be Nobel-worthy) made such a quiet exit impossible, and as a result Obokata went down in flames.

    • Shinsakan

      He did more than maintain belief in STAP- he is the one who came up with the concept as an outgrowth from his previous “SPORE” work. I would be really interested in knowing this as well.

  • Tammy

    Must be psychosis.
    She’s never lied since “only she” really found it out.
    It’s the reason why she regally appeared in an interview and released this personal notes.

    She is same as ASKA and schizoid, who has suffered damage by corporate stalker.
    Definitely don’t have to take it seriously.

    She shouldn’t be exposed in this way.
    FOR SURE.

    • Shinsakan

      The whole point of science is reproducibility. Until it can be done by someone else, preferably everyone else, nobody believes new discoveries. That is how the field (unlike the public) avoids being taken in by fraud like this. Even more ironic is that the whole advantage of the supposed STAP method was that it was supposed to be simple and easy to do. That would make it even more important that the findings be able to be rapidly replicated. However, in this case, none of the top stem cell labs around the world (and remember that Obokata and her boss Vacanti were tissue engineers and not hard-core stem cell biologists- that was why they collaborated with Wakayama and Sasai) was ever able to replicate the findings. Also, she did lie in the manuscript by misusing a figure from an unrelated study.

      • Tammy

        As you guessed, she might have realized what she had found was not STAP phenomenon.

        And at first she might have lied although she knew it’s untrue.

        While she said “STAP cell is existed.”, she surely was getting to believe it had really been.

        Otherwise, she couldn’t have published the memoir with confidence like this.

        In the book, she insists how she had been damaged and how she has suffered yet.

        No longer remember what she did.

        Her instinct guarded her by ill because she couldn’t be able to sanely overcome this tough situation.

      • Tammy

        As you guessed, she might have realized what she had found was not STAP phenomenon.
And at first she might have lied although she knew it’s untrue.
While she said “STAP cell is existed.”, she surely was getting to believe it had really been.
Otherwise, she couldn’t have published the memoir with confidence like this.
In the book, she insists how she had been damaged and how she has suffered yet.
No longer remember what she did.
Her instinct guarded her by ill because she couldn’t sanely overcome this tough situation.

      • Shinsakan

        This is a good point. She might actually believe in STAP now because of some kind of mental illness caused by everything she has gone through. However, we have to remember that she put herself in that tough situation in the first place by lying/committing misconduct before there was any media uproar or attention attracted to her. That is why it is difficult to sympathize with her. If her fraud was not detected, then she would have happily and knowingly used her false discovery to get fame and a prestigious research position. Her possible current mental illness does not excuse what she originally did.

  • TheDigitalGeek

    I am inclined to believe that either Obokata lost her way in her methodology, or that others intentionally doctored experiments. In other words, she was set up to succeed (in producing STAP cells) in the lab and set up to fail (in producing STAP cells) in the eyes of the scientific world. It is hard to imagine that she intentionally created this deception of STAP results knowing that its simplicity made it so easy to be checked by others. I think that she sincerely believed that the technique worked. It didn’t. It only appeared to work because the starting cells were contaminated with the cells that everybody would be looking for. This is way to easy to use to bring down somebody with the enthusiasm to achieve something of value.

    • Shinsakan

      The initial experiments, before the collaboration with RIKEN started, did not involve the comparison with other cells, particularly the cells that were eventually found to have replaced the so-called STAP cells. In those early experiments, it is easy to see how she could have misinterpreted the data and mistakenly thought she created STAP cells. However, after that, I think that at some point she probably realized that STAP cells don’t exist, or at least that she hadn’t actually found them yet, but then either felt pressure to falsify data because of the career possibility of having her own lab at RIKEN or felt that falsifying data is o.k. because of her poor training. It is very hard to believe that someone else could have switched the cells or doctored the findings; how would they even go about doing so? She, as the one primarily doing the cell culture experiments, had the greatest opportunity and the most to gain. Also, it is not just about switching of cells. All the other problems with the papers that were published, which led to the papers being retracted, could not have been done by someone else, and that is actually why she was fired from RIKEN (nobody accused her of switching the cells, even though it is hard to imagine how it could be someone else). She probably wasn’t expecting that her work would be so carefully scrutinized later or that it would be such a huge problem when her findings could not be replicated, or maybe she felt like she had no choice and was just hoping that she would not be caught. However, I think that her enthusiasm was just as much about becoming famous and securing her career at all costs as it was about achieving something of value.

  • Mark

    she is a pathological liar from well before the STAP debacle.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    How does this compare to cold fusion? Some major players filed patents there. Ignoring the human cost, can we say this phenomena serves to kept the rest of the scientist herd healthy and strong?