National / Science & Health

Hiring of Obokata under microscope

Cytologist allegedly fast-tracked to job despite doubtful credentials

Kyodo

Doubts have emerged over a research proposal that stem cell scientist Haruko Obokata submitted less than two years ago to the Riken institute when applying for her current position, a draft report on her hiring showed Thursday.

A third-party panel set up under government-backed Riken found that a purported image of human cells in the document was the same as an image of mouse cells that Obokata had used in her doctoral dissertation, the draft said.

The panel also found multiple sections of text in the document’s English section to be identical to those in a patent application document relating to STAP cells that was filed by Harvard University, where she once studied.

The embattled Obokata, who completed her doctorate at Waseda University in 2011 and was a visiting researcher there, submitted the research plan when Riken tapped her to apply for higher researcher status in November 2012. At that time, her work on STAP cells had been drawing attention. She became a research unit leader at Riken in 2013.

STAP stands for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency. STAP cells can develop into a wide range of tissues, and Obokata’s work purported to show a new, simpler way of producing the versatile cells.

Meanwhile, sources familiar with the situation said it appears that the institute’s center for developmental biology in Kobe used an irregular procedure to recruit Obokata — skipping the letter of recommendation and conducting the required interview in Japanese instead of English.

Riken, aware of Obokata’s unpublished STAP research, may have been motivated to fast-track her hiring and gain credit for publication — despite Obokata’s comparative inexperience, the sources said.

Riken said Wednesday that Obokata had agreed to retract a high-profile research paper published in January by the British science journal Nature, which described a stunningly simple method that she said could produce STAP cells more easily. Errors in the work as it was published have since been alleged.

Also on Wednesday, Harvard University professor Charles Vacanti, a senior co-author who had initially opposed withdrawing the paper, sent a letter to Nature asking that it be retracted.

Nature said on an online news blog that Vacanti’s letter had come “out of the blue.”

If Nature decides to withdraw both the main and auxiliary papers, it would annul a “breakthrough” that was widely hailed this year.

The journal said Vacanti’s request for a retraction “may have broken Obokata’s resistance.” All co-authors “now appear to have consented to retraction,” the journal said. “This leaves the papers’ fate in the hands of Nature.”