Rising Japanese scientist faked heralded stem cell research, lab says

In this Jan. 28, 2014 photo, Japanese government-funded laboratory Riken Center for Development Biology researcher Haruko Obokata, the lead author of a widely heralded stem-cell research paper, speaks about her research results on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells during a press conference in Kobe, western Japan. Scientists at the institute said Tuesday, April 1, that discrepancies in research published in January in scientific journal Nature stemmed from image manipulation and data fabrication. They said Obokata had manipulated or falsified images of DNA fragments used in the research. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

In her short scientific career, the trajectory of Haruko Obokata was meteoric. Before the 30-year-old was 20, she was accepted into the science department at Tokyo’s Waseda University where the admittance board placed great importance on a candidate’s aspirations.

Then she studied at Harvard University in what was supposed to be a half-year program, but advisers were so impressed with her research, they asked her stay longer.

It was there that she would come up with an idea that would come to define her — in ways good and bad. The research was called STAP — “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” — which unveiled a new way to grow tissue. “I think about my research all day long, including when I am taking a bath and when I am on a date with my boyfriend,” Obokata told the Asahi Shimbun.

Last January, just three years after Obokata earned her PhD, she published what appeared to be her groundbreaking research in the scientific journal Nature. It purported to establish a new way to grow tissue and treat complicated illnesses like diabetes and Parkinson’s disease with an uncomplicated lab procedure. Many called it the third most significant breakthrough in stem cell research.

“There were many days when I wanted to give up on my research and cried all night long,” she said at news conference. “But I encouraged myself to hold on just for one more day.”

The headlines were thunderous. “Stem cell ‘major discovery’ claimed,” BBC bellowed. “STAP cell pioneer nearly gave up on her research,” reported the Asahi Shimbun. “Scientist triumphed over setbacks,” crooned the Japan News.

On Tuesday morning, Obokata’s research institute, Riken, which is almost entirely funded by the government, announced that the 30-year-old had purposely fabricated the data to produce the findings. Institute director Ryoji Noyori said he’ll “rigorously punish relevant people after procedures in a disciplinary committee,” according to AFP.

The investigation’s head said the paper “amounts to phony research or fabrication.” He added: “The manipulation was used to improve the appearance of the results.”

Obokata, for her part, denied the month-long investigation’s allegations. “I will file a complaint against Riken as it’s absolutely impossible for me to accept this,” AFP reports her saying in a statement.

Whispers began soon after the paper hit print. No one was able to successfully reproduce the experiment. According to Riken’s preliminary report, the institute received its first hint that not everything was as it seemed with Obokata’s research on February 13, and eventually conceded there were “serious errors.”

Riken said it launched its probe of the research that day “given the seriousness of the issue.”

In early March one of the paper’s co-authors, Teruhiko Wakayama, jumped ship, calling for a retraction of the findings. “It’s unlikely that it was a careless mistake,” he wrote the Wall Street Journal in an e-mail.

“There is no more credibility when there are such crucial mistakes,” he added.

At issue, investigators say, are images of DNA fragments submitted into Obokata’s work. They say they weren’t the result of “errors,” as previously theorized. The images were either doctored or entirely fabricated.

Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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