More disclosure needed at Riken

In an appeal filed with the government-backed Riken research institute on April 8 and at a news conference the next day, embattled scientist Dr. Haruko Obokata countered a Riken investigation committee’s assertion that she committed research misconduct on two points in one of two papers that purported to describe the discovery of “STAP” pluripotent cells. But her attempt to justify her research and papers has left many questions to be answered.

In a nutshell, she said that because she had no malicious intent, she neither fabricated nor manipulated research data. She seems to presume that the very presentation of data in science papers need not be beyond reproach. Her explanations have underscored her naivete as a science researcher.

At the news conference, she insisted that STAP cells exist. If so, it is imperative that she disclose all relevant data and come up with concrete and convincing evidence. The best way to expel suspicions would be for Obokata to produce STAP cells in a transparent environment.

In the two papers published in the British science journal Nature in late January, a team of Japanese and U.S. scientists led by Obokata claimed that by soaking lymph corpuscles from 7-day-old mice in mildly acidic liquid, they succeeded in reprogramming some of them into pluripotent cells that developed into nerve and muscle tissues. They named this new way of turning adult cells into pluripotent cells “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” or STAP.

Concerning an image that Obokata claimed was from a test designed to determine the origin of cells by focusing on the patterns of DNA taken from cells and placed in an electric field, the investigation committee asserted that it was “a composite … created from two separate images” and that this act in itself constituted manipulation of data.

In her appeal, Obokata said she adopted the procedure merely to make the images easy to see and that this procedure did not affect the results of her team’s research.

Clearly her decision to use this procedure, as described by the committee, in a research paper would suggest a checkered regard for trustworthiness in her data presentation.

Separately the committee asserted that the images Obokata used to show STAP cells’ pluripotency “very closely resembled images in her doctoral thesis” for Waseda University, created under different research conditions. It concluded that there was “an act of research misconduct involving fabrication.”

In her appeal, Obokata said she did not directly take the images from her doctoral paper but took them by mistake from material for a Powerpoint projection for co-researchers to see. She also said she realized the mistake before anybody else pointed it out and submitted the genuine images to the committee. She said she submitted a correction paper and the genuine images to Nature on March 9. Riken should clarify whether this clears suspicion of the images in question.

At the news conference, Obokata maintained that STAP cells exist, adding that she produced STAP cells on more than 200 occasions and had preserved cellular specimens. She also said that a different researcher independently succeeded in producing STAP cells but did not disclose his or her identity.

She also insisted that she had no intention of withdrawing the papers that appeared in Nature, saying “As long as the conclusions of the research are correct, withdrawing the papers is not the right action.”

She rebutted an argument that STAP cells may actually be embryonic stem cells, noting that her laboratory never cultured ES cells. To help verify her assertion that STAP cells exist, Obokata should present research data related to her production of STAP cells on more than 200 occasions. She also needs to have the researcher who she said independently produced STAP cells come forward and speak.

Many scientists say that although they have tried to produce STAP cells on the basis of the papers written by Obokata’s team, they have not succeeded.

Obokata countered that the method mentioned in the papers does not represent the optimum conditions for creating STAP cells and that there are “knacks and recipes” for doing so. She must reveal them so that other scientists can duplicate and thus verify her claimed achievements.

It has been reported that Obokata only filled two laboratory notebooks in connection with her STAP cell research. She said she has four or five lab notebooks but has refused to disclose their contents because she said they touch on her “secret research.” She also admitted that they are not written in a way that other researchers could understand. Obokata’s presumptions about preserving records, handling data and writing science papers is naive at best.

Obokata hinted that Riken tried to muzzle her when she expressed willingness to respond in person to questions about her research and papers. A third-party committee should be set up to investigate why Riken failed to detect inadequacies in the papers on the STAP cell discovery and whether Riken is holding back data and information that should be made public. Riken for its part should accelerate its planned attempt to produce STAP cells in a verifiable manner to prove that the research can be duplicated.