The Riken research institute said Wednesday that ongoing efforts to reproduce so-called STAP cells — whose existence was first claimed by scientist Haruko Obokata in the British journal Nature — have failed.
The announcement comes on the heels of a series of scandals that have cast doubt on the veracity of Obokata’s claims.
“We’re still midway, but there’s a possibility that STAP cells don’t exist,” said Hitoshi Niwa, who leads a research team tasked in April with attempting to reproduce Obokata’s original findings.
Niwa, also a Riken researcher, helped co-author the original paper, which proposed a new method of generating stem cells capable of developing into any type of tissue, in mice.
Obokata, the paper’s lead author, joined the experiment to verify her findings in July, but is working separately from the team.
Earlier in the day, Riken announced a plan to implement a raft of measures aimed at improving the quality of scientific research conducted at the center and curbing the negative publicity associated with the STAP research.
The measures included halving the size of the Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe — which failed to prevent Obokata’s misconduct — as well as replacing its top director, Masatoshi Takeichi, among other senior officials.
Ryoji Noyori, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry and president of the government-backed Riken institute, reported the plan to science and technology minister Hakubun Shimomura.
The center will “make a fresh start under a situation close to dissolution,” the plan stated, without giving details on the exact responsibilities of senior Riken officials.
Takeichi’s successor will be selected during the current fiscal year through March 2015, while the name of the center will be changed by November.
Approximately 450 researchers belong to the center, which will see the number of its laboratories halved from 40 to 20, Riken said.
An external reform committee set up in June after the misconduct was revealed reported “a structural defect” inside the center. It recommended dismantling the unit, as well as changes to key personnel as a means to address the problem.
Riken said that its reform plan would be carried out “not for the sake of Riken, but for the sake of society as a whole.”
Obokata shot to fame as the young lead author of a study, published in late January, that outlined a simple, radical method for producing pluripotent stem cells — that are capable of growing into any type of tissue — in mice.
The study was seen as trailblazing at the time but quickly became mired in controversy, and was eventually retracted in the face of allegations about data falsification and fabrication.
Earlier this month, Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author of the papers, committed suicide at the Riken institute in Kobe.
In April, Riken launched a series of verification experiments at the Center for Developmental Biology to determine whether STAP cells actually exist. The experiments were slated to last a year.
Riken had originally planned to try to reproduce STAP cells by the end of June, and had anticipated releasing an interim report this summer.
After Obokata joined the experiments, Riken announced that it would add her findings to the team’s reports before arriving at a final conclusion on the veracity of her original published findings.
Information from Kyodo added