How Japan’s most promising young stem-cell scientist duped the scientific journal Nature — and destroyed her career


April photo of scientist Haruko Obokata. (EPA/KIMIMASA MAYAMA)

On January 28, a young scientist known for her intelligence and ambition arrived at Japan’s renowned research institute Riken. Expected to deliver remarks about her groundbreaking research on the development of stem cells in mice, she was triumphant. “There were many days when I wanted to give up on my research and cried all night,” the 30-year-old Haruko Obokata said while addressing a phalanx of cameras at the news conference. “But I encouraged myself to hold on just for one more day.”

On Wednesday, she again arrived at Riken’s offices, but this time under very different circumstances. Her co-author had disavowed the two major scientific papers. Riken investigators said she “fabricated” or misrepresented her research. And the lauded scientific publication Nature that published the paper retracted it and is reviewing its method of  vetting submissions. So, expression austere, she rushed past 50 reporters waiting outside Riken and disappeared into the laboratory to try and salvage what remained of her career, the Japan News says.

Under video surveillance, she will attempt to recreate the widely-trumpeted findings that allegedly showed stem cells could be made quickly by dripping blood cells into acid. Called STAP — “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” — the discovery originally blew everyone away. The research purported to establish a new way to grow tissue and treat complicated illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease with a simple lab procedure. Many called it the third most significant breakthrough in stem cell research.

That was then. Now Obokata, who denies misconduct and contends the STAP condition does exist, is suspected of duping two of the world’s leading scientific bodies. And on Wednesday, she and the other scientists conceded their studies were flawed and retracted them.

“We apologize for the mistakes,” the scientists wrote in the retraction, citing several “critical errors.” “These multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole and we are unable to say without doubt whether the STAP-SC phenomenon is real. Ongoing studies are investigating this phenomenon afresh, but given the extensive nature of the errors currently found, we consider it appropriate to retract both papers.”

Nature as well says it has “considered” what lessons it can draw from retraction. In its statement, it concluded it “could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers.” That said, it plans to amend some of its policies to better discern “image manipulation … Our policies have always discouraged inappropriate manipulation. However, our approach to policing it was never to do more than to check a small proportion of accepted papers. We are now reviewing our practices to increase such checking greatly.”

Problems with Obokata’s research emerged almost immediately. Something seemed off with some of the images in the study, and its language bore too great of a resemblance to another study published a decade before, according to the New York Times.

“As various media outlets including Nature’s independent news team reported, errors were found in the figures, parts of the methods descriptions were found to be plagiarized and early attempts to replicate the work failed,” Nature said.

That initial skepticism gave way to Riken’s own investigation. Its head soon concluded that the problems didn’t just constitute errors – but outright misconduct. The paper, he said, “amounts to phony research or fabrication.”

“Dr Obokata’s actions and sloppy data management lead us to the conclusion that she sorely lacks, not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher,” the investigative committee said, according to the Guardian.

Obokata, who has reportedly fallen into “ill health,” appealed the investigation’s results. But on May 7, Riken confirmed its initial investigation, accusing her of “fabrication” and “misconduct.” “Problems regarding the handling of the image data under investigation go beyond sloppy management,” the report found.

Weeks later, her co-author on the work recanted, saying the cells purportedly used in the study did not appear to be STAP cells after all. “There is no proof as to the existence of STAP cells,” Teruhiko Wakayama said at a news conference. “All the results of the analysis are moving toward denying the existence of STAP cells but I cannot say that the cells absolutely do not exist.”

Obokata is expected to work at Riken for the next five months to prove that they do. An interim report on her progress is expected in late July.

RELATED: Why some ‘breakthroughs’ are wrong 

 

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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