The Riken institute released the final findings Tuesday of an investigation into two controversial stem cell papers, in what appears to be a hasty attempt at preserving its chances of being upgraded by the government to a high-powered science research center.
The final report, released just over two weeks after an interim report, assigned blame to lead author Haruko Obokata for fabrication and falsification of data used in the articles that appeared in the British science journal Nature in late January.
But it failed to clear up some allegations, including the veracity of so-called STAP cells as claimed by the articles’ authors.
Riken began its investigation Feb. 20 after allegations of the articles’ impropriety first emerged on a Japanese website earlier in the month.
The controversy does not appear likely to go away anytime soon as Obokata, a researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, one of Riken’s laboratories, has rejected claims of data fabrication and manipulation, denying any such intent.
Obokata’s lawyer, Hideo Miki, said Wednesday that arrangements were being made to file an objection with Riken early next week over the investigation’s conclusion that she committed fraud as lead author of the two papers.
Miki said Obokata may hold a news conference as she has expressed a willingness to explain herself.
“I have never agreed to have the papers retracted. Nor do I intend to retract them,” Obokata was quoted as saying.
She has been given a 10-day window to appeal since March 31, when she was notified by the panel.
Regarding the six allegations leveled against the two research papers, Riken’s investigation panel acknowledged the fabrication of images purported to show STAP cells transforming into various somatic cells, as well as a falsification of an image to show DNA patterns extracted from cells.
STAP stands for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.
Riken did not investigate whether the papers used cells other than STAP cells in experiments to test their ability to become a variety of different cells.
It also did not address an allegation that an experiment procedure published separately lacked evidence showing that somatic cells turned into STAP cells.
“I don’t understand the motivation,” said Riken Executive Director Maki Kawai when asked about the alleged misconduct.
Masatoshi Takeichi, director at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, said, “there is no conclusive evidence” of the existence of STAP cells, adding the center will start the research from scratch over a one-year period.
“I didn’t mean to commit any fraud or have any malicious intent,” Obokata has said, explaining that one of the irregularities in the images was an attempt to show “better-looking photos” and the other was “a simple mistake.”
Riken is recommending the papers be withdrawn. But with Obokata planning to appeal, the prospect of retraction appears uncertain, as it requires consent from all authors. Another author, Charles Vacanti of Harvard Medical School, a former adviser to Obokata, is also opposed.
After the interim report was released on March 14, Riken President Ryoji Noyori reportedly told a meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party that the institute’s investigation into the allegations would “take another three months to a year.”
However, the final report came much quicker than he anticipated, with the press conference on it given Tuesday.
Behind the apparently hasty move may have been the government’s plan to upgrade select institutes to the status of high-powered national research centers with budgets to hire top-notch researchers and undertake long-term projects.
Just two days before the release of Riken’s interim investigation report on March 14, the government’s Council for Science and Technology Policy picked Riken and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology to receive such status and was preparing to pass relevant bills in the current Diet session through late June.
The interim report, however, fell short of stating whether the papers involved any fraudulent actions by authors, leaving room for doubt if Riken has the oversight ability required to receive the designation of a new research center.
In late March, a senior official at the science and technology ministry, which oversees Riken, was alarmed by the limited window Riken had to squarely address the allegations.
“If we hope to see the bills passed during the current Diet session, the final report must come out in the first week of April. We don’t want to suffer a loss by default,” the official said.
The final report was completed apparently to meet the legislative timetable and blamed Obokata alone. But government officials are skeptical about granting Riken the new status.
“It’s difficult to issue a Cabinet decision this month” on bills to designate Riken as a special research center, science minister Hakubun Shimomura said after meeting Riken President Noyori.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government “wants to respond to the matter after having carefully checked the governance at Riken.”
Meanwhile, a professor at a university in the Kansai region said, “Riken seems to have been trying to do something like iPS cells,” referring to another form of stem cell developed from mice cells in 2006 by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University.
“It must have been frustrating (for Riken),” the professor said, adding that that sense of frustration may have prompted Riken to come up with the STAP cell project instead.
“Trust in the overall research in Japan has been significantly impaired,” said Michiharu Nakamura, president of the Japan Science and Technology Agency, which distributes the government research fund.
“Life science is a field that is rapidly growing. However, are not ethics and guidance over research being put on the back burner?” he said.
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