STAP paper co-author Sasai commits suicide

Kyodo, AP, Staff Report

Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author of controversial research papers on so-called STAP cells, committed suicide at an institute of the government-affiliated Riken in Kobe, police said Tuesday.

Sasai, 52, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe and an adviser to scandal-hit Riken scientist Haruko Obokata, 30, was confirmed dead after being found hanged from a stairway handrail at the center, the police said.

He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and a pair of slacks. His shoes were off, placed together on the landing of the staircase.

Satoru Kagaya, head of public relations at Riken, said at a news conference that at least one apparent suicide note was found on the desk used by Sasai’s secretary, as well as three other notes left near the body.

One of the notes, addressed to Obokata, read, “Be sure to reproduce STAP cells,” sources revealed later in the day.

Kagaya said earlier he could not disclose to whom the suicide notes were addressed, “considering the deep sorrow that Sasai’s family must be feeling at this point.”

Kagaya noted that when he talked to Sasai over the phone several times in May and June, he seemed to have been “tired both mentally and physically.” Kagaya said he felt something was wrong in the way Sasai talked, and that he seemed to have less energy than before.

Sasai’s colleagues at Riken said he had been receiving mental counseling since the scandal surrounding papers on STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells, which was lead-authored by Obokata, came to light earlier this year.

Kagaya added that Sasai was hospitalized for nearly a month in March due to psychological stress related to the scandal, but that he “recovered and had not been hospitalized since.”

A series of allegations surfaced over the credibility of two papers on STAP cells that were published in British science journal Nature in January but then were retracted in July.

Sasai supervised Obokata’s writing. A Riken investigative committee has said Sasai bore heavy responsibility for not confirming data for the STAP study and for Obokata’s misconduct.

Obokata is now engaged in experiments at Riken to verify the findings of the research.

Sasai’s team retracted the research papers from Nature over Obokata’s alleged malpractice, which she has contested.

Retractions of papers in major scientific journals are rare, and the scandal was a major embarrassment to Japan’s scientific research.

In two papers published earlier this year in the journal Nature, the researchers reported that they successfully transformed ordinary mouse cells into versatile stem cells by exposing them to a mildly acidic environment. Scientists hope to harness stem cells to grow replacement tissue for treating a variety of diseases.

Riken later held Obokata responsible for falsifying data. The investigation also focused on Sasai and two other employees, though the three were not accused of research misconduct.

Sasai had said he was “deeply ashamed” over the problems in the papers.

  • guest

    unbelievable. Some of my Japanese co-workers understand why he did it, but such mindset is way out of my league. Given the circumstances, such suicide never justifies anything. Especially when leaving a wife and children behind and with the potential devastating consequences for Obokata.

    • Tim

      I live in a nearby country. It’s not entirely unbelievable. Back in the pre-modern waring period (or whatever it is called), they often commit suicide by stabbing their own stomach with a knife when found of wrong-doing or big blunders. It’s part of the tradition and in the psych of the Japanese. Maybe it is because of this huge consequence expected by the society, the Japanese are meticulous in their works, always attentive to the little details. And perhaps it is because of the same drive, they are in continuous self-denial about the brutal war crimes committed in WWII, and also evidently denial in their handling of the Fukushima incident. Just my guess.

      • Fang

        the nuance of “unbelievable” is not how you understood it (it’s not about the truth of the act) given the points that were raised. It’s just an expression of disbelief because of what this person did.

      • Tim

        Yes I know. Perhaps I didn’t express myself correctly. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • JBtheHutt

        Wow, Tim. Your comment is filled with more errors (not to mention fallacies, stereotypes and ridiculously poor historical interpretations) than Obokata’s research papers. It’s “unbelievable” that you believe all that junk about “the Japanese,” as though they were all the same, and haven’t changed since the warring period haha

      • EmiKat

        JBtheHutt, what is your explanation to this suicide and such similar acts committed in contemporary Japan?

      • Tim

        I’m open to corrections if you would add your input. Sure, it is a sort of stereotype. By no mean I’m suggesting all Japanese are alike, nor do people of any other country always akin to their perceived sterotypes. But it’s my perception that they do have this difference, population as a whole. You just don’t see people in other countries commit suicide base on this reason, at least not many.

        Also, I ended my last post, it’s “my guess”. So it’s my interpretation, you’re welcome to correct me.

      • Kurtz25

        Really? You’re from “a nearby country” and you somehow managed to shoehorn some whining about winning WWII into a comment on an unrelated news story?

        That never happens.

        How much does the Party pay you guys to astroturf every single page on the Internet?

      • Tim

        I’m just telling you the way I think Japanese mind works. By referring to WWII and Fukushima, I’m saying that it’s consistent. Surely, the STAP thing has nothing to do with those. But, it can be related if you are talking about the population mindset. I draw examples from different anectodal evidences to form my own opinions.

        If you are to imply somehow I get paid to say what I really do think then that’s at best defamation. That’s very unprofessional on your part and that’s unacceptable.

      • Steve Jackman

        I agree with Kurtz25 in that your comment seems contrived.

        I think there are two factors behind such suicides in Japan. The first has to do with the collective nature of Japanese society, where people’s sense of self worth is derived from those around them (peers, friends, coworkers, family and neighbors, etc), much more so than in individualistic Western societies. The shame of being part of a scandal after it has been exposed is too great to bear, so some people take the easy way out by commiting suicide. I don’t think such suicides are honorable, since they only happen once a dishonorable act becomes public and so they are not a result of some soul searching by the individual. It is a rather cowardly act, since the person is escaping from taking responsibility for his actions, so let’s not try to romanticise it.

        The second reason is that the Japanese can be extremely tough and brutal towards each other after a scandal like this becomes public, since it brings shame on them by association. Japanese society can turn on its own members who bring shame to the group in such a harsh manner that the person feels completely worthless and that there is no reason for them to go on living. The social ostracism is so great that it leads some people to commit suicide.

        So, it is quite tragic either way you look at it, since it is based on personal weakness of the individual in dealing with the outcome of their inappropriate actions and society’s refusal to forgive them for their mistake. As tragic as these suicides are, I do not think they are honorable, noble, moral or high-principled in any way.

  • SlightlyDisappointed

    It’s amazing that by this point they’re giving Obokata a second chance to redeem herself by letting her repeat the experiments under the supervisions of another team. The level of incompetence shown by this woman so far are something astounding: the inconsistent DNA in test mice, the copypasted photos that should have proven the existence of STAP cells instead, the insufficient research papers that look more like highschool doodles (heart marks and all!), the container of IPS cells found inside the lab’s freezer, 20 or so pages of her PhD thesis stolen verbatim from the homepage of some US university.
    This STAP controversy is only dragging Japan’s scientific credibility and the whole Rikejo program into the mud, and apparently it’s starting to claim its first victims.
    I hope that the absurd idea of forced gender egalitarianism will be the next thing to die.

    • Can you explain me what does gender egalitarism to do with this news or that Obakata is a bad scientist?

    • phu

      The experiment is the most important thing about this issue; that we’ve been told otherwise is simply because the controversy garners more page views than the science behind it.

      Confirming the results with oversight and correcting the mistakes would mean a boon for medical science. Debunking the results would prove conclusively that, in addition to being sloppy and dishonest, she’s a fraud.

      I agree that letting her do it instead of a scientist (male or female) that hasn’t proven themselves maliciously unreliable would be better. But I personally don’t care who’s running the experiment as long as the scientific community gets conclusive results one way or the other.

    • This isn’t about female researchers, this is about one researcher (and even more than that, the research team that signed off on her work). You do realize that trying to draw a conclusion from a single data point is bad science, right?

      And so what if she drew hearts or something on her notes? What does that have to do with anything??

  • Dan

    Sasai is a great scientist and the suicide is heartbreaking and a big loss to stem cell society.

    • guest

      Yes, a brilliant scientist and a chunk of knowledge has died with him.
      My condolences to his family and friends

  • Guest

    What does gender egalitarism has to do with this news or that Obakata is a bad scientist?

  • GBR48

    Nobody has exactly covered themselves in glory here.

    First off, you make sure that your researchers follow globally recognised procedures, particularly on major breakthroughs that are going to make the news. If there is an issue, you deal with it honestly, thoroughly, rapidly and openly. You re-do any experiments with independent scrutiny.

    The media should not have applied the continuous pressure and taken the idol worship/witch hunt line that they have done. And chasing people through traffic to get a quote was absolutely shameful. Back off and start pretending you are civilised human beings. You might get the hang of it.

    Japan does have a problem with suicide, just check the statistics. Every employer, when their employees come under intense pressure, should be aware of this and should be ready to offer support. Japanese companies often tout themselves as ‘families’. Act like it.

    For anyone contemplating this sort of thing, there are always better ways to fix things, even if they are not immediately apparent to you. Talk to someone. Ask for help.

    Life is precious. Suicide is always a tragedy, particularly for those left behind-show some respect and accord the family some privacy.

    Everyone, just wind it down. The media should back off and wait until they have something to report.

    • gagz

      the media won’t report on how GLG pressured Sasai to go along with this whole thing. The entire scandal is way above any scientist.

      THe point of getting the STAP papers published was to open the doors for investment. The Nature paper gave the work the necessary spine, along with the patent (to make it look super serious), to get serious interest.

      GLG is an expert network consisting of many ivy league researchers who are often put up to this sort of nonsense in order to pump stocks and help people like mike bloomberg get rich.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Seriously Japan Times – comments open for this article??? Really??? Have you no journalistic integrity???

    • phu

      I don’t think I’d call the two related (you can be callous without sacrificing your objectivity), but I’m guessing you’ve read enough editorials on this site to have come to a grim conclusion about JT’s general level of journalistic integrity long before now.

      • Jamie Bakeridge

        Fair point. My concern is that the reporting of a suicide is a personal tragedy and should only be reported as a factual story, at least at first, and only later subject to editorial comment.