National

Professor faked enzyme test: Todai panel

Key scientist blames lab aide, calls probe conclusion 'misunderstanding'

A University of Tokyo investigative panel said Friday that results from 12 experiments on human enzymes conducted by one of its academic teams have not been reproduced so far, suggesting a biochemistry engineering professor may have fabricated results published in scientific papers on the research.

Professor Kazunari Taira, 53, of the department of chemistry and biotechnology at the engineering graduate school at the university commonly known as Todai, rejected this conclusion, telling reporters it was the product of a misunderstanding.

The panel published its findings in a report released Friday after nine months of investigation.

Taira’s case could turn into a homegrown version of the scandal that swamped South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk, who published a landmark paper claiming to have produced 11 embryonic stem cells tailored to individual patients, but was found to have fabricated his results.

Kimihiko Hirao, head of the university’s chemistry and biotechnology department, said at a news conference Friday that Taira’s acts represent “something abnormal that cannot be looked at squarely for many researchers who are making patient efforts. . . . It’s really irritating (for us) to have overlooked the existence of abnormal science.”

The university, the country’s most prestigious academic institution, has already decided to close Taira’s office at the laboratory and will convene a disciplinary hearing shortly to decide on possible punishment.

Junichi Hamada, one of five vice presidents of the university, said Friday he was studying whether to dismiss Taira and one of his assistants, Hiroaki Kawasaki.

Taira said he has no intention of leaving voluntarily.

Taira published the papers on a series of human enzyme experiments in overseas scientific journals, including Britain’s Nature, between 1998 and 2004, in which he said his team succeeded in coaxing E. coli bacteria to produce a human enzyme called Dicer — so-called because it splits RNA — by implanting a Dicer gene into a plasmid, a body outside the chromosome that can alter hereditary characteristics when introduced into another bacterium.

But last April, the RNA Society of Japan said it was unable to reproduce Taira’s results and urged the university to investigate.

The university established an investigative panel headed by Yoichiro Matsumoto, who works in the same department as Taira.

The panel asked Taira to review the experiments. He initially told the panel that he did not have notes or samples, but in November he said he had found the plasmid he used and that his assistant had reproduced the experiment.

However, the panel found that the Dicer gene had been implanted into a different part of the plasmid and that a different strain of E. coli bacteria had been used when the experiment was repeated.

Taira has denied any involvement in the incident, claiming his aide conducted both the original experiment and the reproduction of it.