STAP scandal turns fatal

Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author of research papers that claimed to have discovered a potentially groundbreaking method to create pluripotent cells called STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency), has killed himself. After the STAP research raised doubts, Sasai, as an adviser to Haruko Obokata, the chief researcher of the STAP cell research, was criticized for submitting the two papers to Nature science magazine in Britain without carefully verifying data used by Obokata.

People concerned at the government-affiliated Riken institution, the research base for both Obokata and Sasai, should ponder what went wrong with its research system and culture as to lead to the tragic incident — Sasai hanging himself from a stairway handrail at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, where he served as deputy director.

Riken’s self-scrutiny should be the first step toward true reform of the institution.

The crux of the STAP cell research was that when cells from a newly born mouse were soaked in mildly acidic liquid for about 30 minutes, several of them were reported to have changed into cells with pluripotency, attaining the ability to develop into nerves and muscle tissues.

But after the two papers on the research were published in late January, experts raised various suspicions. Of these suspicions, Riken’s investigation committee examined six items and decided that Obokata committed two cases of research misconduct involving fabrication and manipulation of data.

With regard to Sasai, who had helped Obokata write the papers and made drafts within a week, the committee determined that while he did not commit any research misconduct, he bore a grave responsibility for the ensuing confusion, because he had submitted the papers without checking the legitimacy of data used by Obokata.

In July, the papers were retracted. Thus the STAP cell discovery has come to naught, and the scandal has greatly damaged the credibility of Japan’s scientific research. Tragically it has resulted in a leader in the research of regenerative medicine deciding to end his life.

When one looks back on events, it cannot be denied that Riken failed to properly handle the matter when suspicions were first raised about the STAP cell research. This led to a prolongation and worsening of the confusion.

Furthermore, the investigation committee itself was not entirely made up of third-party members, as it included people associated with Riken. Why the committee took up only a limited number of the suspicions that had been raised about the research remains an unanswered question. And after the committee determined that research misconduct had been committed, no disciplinary measures were announced.

These developments have cast doubts over the credibility of the investigation.

If, from the start, Riken had announced its purpose for investigating as well as a methodology that were reasonable and acceptable to the eyes of outside researchers and the general public, and had steadily carried out the probe in accordance with that purpose and methodology, public suspicions and doubts about Riken would not have emerged.

It is unfortunate that Riken must yet delve into so-far unexamined suspicions about the STAP cell research as well as carry out tests to ascertain the existence of STAP cells while such suspicions and doubts linger.

Sasai’s death will make it more difficult for Riken to unravel facts related to the STAP cell research. Riken should do its utmost to closely examine each problem that cropped up in the research process and consider how to prevent its recurrence to establish a foundation for sound research in the future.