National

Obokata breaks silence, suggests colleague bears blame for STAP debacle

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

A former star scientist with the government-backed Riken research institute who was accused of research fraud after the debunking of high-profile work on STAP cells in 2014 is ready to tell her side of the story.

In a book relating her ordeal, Haruko Obokata insists she was at least partially successful in creating cells that have the potential to turn into any kind of body tissue.

“I sincerely apologize for causing a huge uproar to society, following the publication of papers on STAP cells,” she writes in the book’s foreword. “I truly feel miserable and sorry for not being able to offer my heartfelt regret and apology to the public. … But I think I would choose to become a researcher again if I am allowed to start my life all over.”

The book is titled “Ano Hi” (“That Day”) and is published by Kodansha. It will hit bookstores on Thursday.

Obokata was formally fired by Riken in February last year after its investigative panel was unable to replicate her research into the production of STAP cells, or those that have stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

What is potentially most contentious about the 253-page book concerns her association with, and then estrangement from, onetime boss Teruhiko Wakayama, a former Riken researcher who now teaches at Yamanashi University. Obokata asserts in the book that crucial parts of the STAP experiments were handled only by Wakayama and alleges that he changed his accounts of how the STAP cells were produced.

An investigative panel under Riken concluded in December 2014 that what researchers originally claimed were STAP cells, were likely ES cells. It failed to determine whether the ES cells were introduced by accident or deliberately.

Obokata claims in the book that she was “framed” as the individual who mixed in ES cells. She said she received the cells used in the experiments from Wakayama, and directs suspicions at him instead.

She describes how she found herself overwhelmed by negative media coverage and lost the mental strength to issue rebuttals amid the slew of allegations of misconduct and data manipulation following the publication of two STAP papers in Nature in January 2014.

In a statement, Kodansha said the book is an important record by someone whose side of the story has not yet been heard.

“We think it’s meaningful to publish the views of Ms. Obokata herself to investigate the causes of confusion over the STAP cells,” it said.

In January 2014, in an announcement that turned Obokata into a celebrity overnight, a team of Japanese and U.S. researchers led by Obokata claimed they had succeeded in reprogramming adult cells of mice into pluripotent cells by simply soaking them in mildly acidic liquid.

But a series of allegations, including the fabrication of data, led to the papers being retracted in July that year.

A month later, as the controversy escalated, Yoshiki Sasai, a former mentor and co-author of the study, committed suicide.

Obokata received a disciplinary discharge by Riken in February 2015.