Obokata fails to reproduce ‘STAP cell’ discovery


Embattled scientist Haruko Obokata has failed to produce her so-called STAP cells in experiments at Riken, officials at the research institute and other sources said Thursday, casting further doubt on her claims.

Obokata, a Riken researcher, was the lead author of a pair of papers that claimed to have discovered a new and simpler way to produce pluripotent stem cells, which are capable of developing into any type of tissue, through a process dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP.

Obokata and her team were lauded after their papers on the purported STAP discovery appeared in the prestigious journal Nature earlier this year. The papers were eventually retracted due to allegations of misconduct, and Riken has been trying to verify Obokata’s findings ever since.

The state-backed institute, which said it might halt its attempts to verify Obokata’s method, plans to hold a press conference in Tokyo Friday to announce the results of its verification efforts. Obokata is not expected to attend.

Obokata was allowed to join Riken’s efforts in July under monitoring by a third party. She tried to replicate her own study using genetically manipulated mouse spleen cells that glow green if a gene indicative of pluripotency is activated.

In the course of the experiments, Obokata sometimes succeeded in creating the glowing cells, but only at a very low rate, the sources said. She repeatedly attempted to produce a mouse, a feat which would have illustrated the cells’ pluripotency, by injecting them into the fertilized eggs of another mouse but failed.

A Riken team conducting the experiments said in an interim report in August that it had yet to reproduce STAP cells following the steps outlined in Obokata’s papers, which involved subjecting mouse cells to mildly acidic liquid.

The papers were initially seen as trailblazing when they appeared in the British journal in January. But inconsistencies in them quickly led to allegations of data falsification and fabrication, leading to their retraction in July.

To prevent further misconduct, Riken has revised internal rules to require all staff to receive education on research ethics and stipulate procedures for recording data, Riken sources said.

  • Shinsakan

    I have never heard of a situation where someone was still given a chance to replicate falsified data after the original findings were discredited and could not be reproduced by any other lab in the world. The outcome is of course not surprising. There are many underfunded researchers doing legitimate work who I wish that this wasted money went to instead.

    • Barry Rosenfeld

      I can’t follow why RIKEN is still pursuing this. However the most likely reason is that they are going along for the sake of face. After all, they touted her without conducting a proper retesting of her thesis and since they’ve created a Frankenstein’s monster in putting her on a pedestal, they felt that for the reason of face they must ‘give her one last try’. But mark my words, she’s finished in Japan and elsewhere. The tragedy is that a good man committed suicide when he should have vetted her results in the first place. She worthless and deserves her fate.

      • Shinsakan

        Very well said; I completely agree with you on all counts. On an even more cynical note, as she seems to be the litigious type, giving her this last chance may also serve to protect them if she tries to sue them when she gets what she has coming to her.

      • Barry Rosenfeld

        Hear hear. You’ve hit it right on the nail. You’ll recall back in 1996 when a charlatan archeologist in Hokkaido I believe claimed to have found the oldest bones found to man. Well he was caught several months later planting much younger artifacts at the sites he had ‘discovered.’ Shows how poor Japanese scholarship id at times with no verification on a western model which is the standard since the late 17th century. Instead people here just take their word or do not wish to offend so do not challenge the assessments.

      • Shinsakan

        Totally agree. Although we have to also remember that in this case it was legitimate Japanese scientists who first pointed out the inconsistencies and fabrication in the Obokata papers and that Obokata’s STAP work was actually performed in the US under supervision by an American. Also, there are plenty of cases like this around the world, and not just in Japan. Indeed, there was a recent scandal of this sort at Obokata’s old institution in the US. Conversely, there is also plenty of good science in Japan. The problem in this case was that the Japanese media took an unsubstantiated discovery of questionable clinical impact and greatly exaggerated its value, thus leading to bigger fall when the misconduct was revealed. This work should not have attracted so much attention in the first place.

      • James

        Duh, you missed out famous cases of falsification in Germany (your West). Even government ministers have plagiarized their theses.

      • Shinsakan

        And senators in the US. :)

  • John Cai

    so what’s the conclusion? the cells she found pluripotent were actually ESCs? She put them in to the mouse cells intentionally and told the world she found cells became pluripotent under stress?

  • J.P. Bunny

    Act I
    “I’ve created STAP cells, hooray!
    Congratulations! How did you do it?
    Just follow these easy steps, a piece of cake.”
    Act II
    “We’ve followed your instructions, but no joy.
    I’ve done this hundreds of times. You’re not doing it correctly.
    A whole bunch of us brainy people can’t replicate your results. Maybe
    you’ve made a mistake?
    STAP cells are real!” Stamp foot.
    Act III
    “It’s been decided that your data was false, and you really shouldn’t be allowed to play in the lab without parental supervision. However, we shall give you time to work in the lab to show us that you can do what you obviously can’t do.
    I shall now get to work and try to replicate a result that no one other than myself can get.”
    Act IV
    “I can’t do what I said I did, but, I’ll let someone else tell you that.”

  • AndrewMD

    It is truly sad but the request for greatness is even more sad… :(