STAP cell scandal still unsettled

An investigative’ committee of the government-backed Riken research institute announced Tuesday that Dr. Haruko Obokata committed two cases of research misconduct — fabrication and manipulation of data — in writing two papers on the discovery of a potentially groundbreaking method to create pluripotent stem cells. Obokata strongly rebutted the findings by the committee.

If what is pointed out by the committee’s report is true, it is so grave that it could lead people to question the credibility of scientific research in general in Japan. A series of examples of misconduct in writing scientific papers have been found, including at the University of Tokyo and Tsukuba University.

Whatever the truth may be, the report should serve as a reminder that not only Riken, where Obokata works, but also the science community in Japan must make strenuous efforts to ensure researchers strictly follow ethical rules for scientists in carrying out research and writing scientific papers.

Although the report blamed Obokata for committing research misconduct, it is insufficient as it avoided touching on the crucial question — the existence or nonexistence of the pluripotent cells that a group of 14 Japanese and U.S. researchers headed by Obokata, at Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, claimed they had discovered.

The report also fails to delve into Riken’s responsibility as a scientific research organization to ensure that research is conducted and papers are written in accordance with globally recognized norms. Riken has failed to fulfill its duties on these points.

While Riken’s investigation committee said that Obokata committed research misconduct, it decided that Yoshiki Sasai, deputy head of the center, who helped write the papers, and Teruhiko Wakayama, a professor at Yamanashi University who carried out an experiment to develop a mouse embryo by injecting what Obokata said were STAP cells into the uterus of a mouse, failed to verify the authenticity and accuracy of data, and that their negligence helped lead to research misconduct on the part of Obokata.

Although the investigation committee did not say that these two veteran researchers had committed research misconduct, it noted that their responsibility is heavy. What emerges from the report is that there were no researchers at Riken who were able to understand the total picture of the research and to rectify mistakes and unethical behavior. This will severely mar the reputation of Riken, one of Japan’s leading research centers.

In two papers published in the British scientific journal Nature magazine toward the end of January, the 14 researchers headed by Obokata said they had soaked lymph corpuscles taken from 7-day-old mice in mildly acidic liquid for about 30 minutes, cultured a few cells that survived, then transplanted them into mice. They said they found that the cells developed into nerve and muscle tissues. They named this new way of reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent cells “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” or STAP.

The claim of the discovery of STAP cells came under the global spotlight because it was seen as a discovery of a third type of pluripotent cells following embryonic stem cells (ES cells) and induced pluripotent cells (iPS cells). But many questions and suspicions were raised online about the papers, forcing Riken to establish an investigative committee.

In Tuesday’s announcement, the committee declared that images that Obokata and other researcher presented as evidence to show the development of STAP cells had been fabricated. The images were intended to show that STAP cells have the ability to change into various cells.

The committee said Obokata had used images “that very closely resembled images in her doctoral thesis” for Waseda University, which were created under different research conditions, and concluded there was “an act of research misconduct involving fabrication.” The committee stated that Obokata’s actions undermined the reliability of the data, which concerns the core message of the papers. In short, the authenticity of the crucial evidence for the discovery of STAP cells was rejected by the committee.

Obokata countered the committee’s assertions by saying that the use of the images in question was the result of a simple mistake and wasn’t done out of malicious intent. She also pointed out that the committee recognized that genuine images exist, so there was no need for her to fabricate data. She also said that before outside people had raised questions about the images, she had found the mistake and reported it to Nature and the investigation committee.

The committee also asserted that an image from a test designed to determine the origin of cells by focusing on the patterns of DNA taken from cells placed in an electric field was “a composite … created from two separate images” and that this act constituted manipulation of data. In response, Obokata said that since the results from the image and those from original data are the same, there was no merit in manipulating data, that she had no intention of doing so and that she had only wanted to present an image that was easy to see.

If Obokata truly thinks that manipulating photos for the sake of convenience is acceptable in scientific research, she is very naive. It is also surprising that her three years of research only resulted in enough data to fill two laboratory notebooks.

Nonetheless, attention must be paid to the fact that Obokata said she made necessary corrections concerning the two sets of images and other items pointed out as inappropriate and that all 14 authors submitted a correction paper to Nature on March 9. A comparison of the investigation committee’s report and Obokata’s rebuttal makes it clear that the case is far from settled. At the very least, Riken should disclose all the original data from the STAP cell research so that outside researchers can determine whether it is reliable or flawed.

One conspicuous feature about the STAP cell research is that Riken carried out what could be termed excessive public relations efforts. In the course of its investigation, Riken should examine whether the institute was too preoccupied with a desire to carry out breakthrough research to enhance its reputation.