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Riken exec urges strict surveillance of Obokata, verification tests

Kyodo

Experiments to verify the existence of so-called STAP cells should be conducted under strict monitoring, the head of a state-backed research center said amid growing doubts about discredited studies led by one of its researchers.

“It’s necessary to ensure an environment in which misconduct absolutely cannot be allowed,” Masatoshi Takeichi, director of Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology said Thursday in a group interview. The center is the entity that hired beleaguered cytologist Haruko Obokata, who published two studies about a new type of stem cell that are due for retraction because of inconsistencies and allegations of research misconduct.

His remarks come after a panel of outside experts tasked with reforming Riken’s operations called June 12 for the Kobe-based center to be immediately disbanded for failing to prevent misconduct by Obokata in connection with her papers on so-called STAP cells. STAP stands for “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.”

Takeichi said surveillance cameras and other steps must be taken to ensure the veracity of the verification process. He also said Obokata’s participation hinges on having strict monitoring protocols in place.

Obokata still has an advisory role at the center but is not present during the verification experiments, according to Takeichi.

The papers Obokata posted in the British science journal Nature in January quickly drew anonymous questions and allegations of misconduct. She recently agreed to retract the papers but maintains the STAP phenomenon exists.

Obokata, who was the lead author, claimed that she found a simple method to successfully produce cells with stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, which, like iPS cells, allows them to develop into any type of tissue in mice.

Asked about his thoughts on whether STAP cells exist, Takeichi said he was skeptical.

“My understanding is that data analysis and other indirect evidence do not support the existence of the STAP phenomenon,” he said.

But he said the results are not yet conclusive and that the issue “on whether the STAP cells exist or not must be settled through scientific experiments” and that Obokata’s involvement in them is crucial.

The reform panel also said the center’s senior officials, including Takeichi, should step down. But Takeichi said he has no plans to quit for the time being.

“It’s (my) biggest duty to make sure the center’s researchers can carry on with their research,” he said.

He also expressed hope that the center’s past accomplishments will be taken into account in discussions about disbanding the organization.

The center, established in 2000 to carry out basic research on regenerative medicine, is known for starting the world’s first clinical research last year using induced pluripotent stem cells, better known as iPS cells, to regenerate retinas.

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