So this is how it ends for the young and ambitious Japanese stem-cell scientist Haruko Obokata: a renowned national scientific institution laid low, a colleague dead, a major retraction and her once-brilliant career in tatters.
It took less than a year. Less than a year since that day in January when she declared a revolutionary method for creating stem cells. Less than a year since scientists starting asking questions about her methods, unearthing fabrications and acts of plagiarism. Less than year since their research was retracted from the scientific journal Nature. And less than a year since her mentor and research partner wrapped a rope around his neck inside a stairwell and hanged himself.
The final chapter has now arrived for Japan’s most promising stem cell scientist. It was announced Friday morning that Obokata, who was given one last chance to replicate her method called STAP, had failed. The procedure claimed to show that stem cells could be made with a startlingly simple procedure of dripping blood cells into acid, and it was initially hailed as a major breakthrough that could lead to treatments for illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease.
The tests, which were monitored under video surveillance, were called off months shy of the full time allotment she had initially been given. “Dr. Obokata has been unable to reproduce the … phenomenon,” Shinichi Aizawa, a Riken biologist who led the verification efforts, said at a news conference, according to the Wall Street Journal. “While we initially planned to continue efforts until March, we will end the experiments at this point.”
It was, according to prominent stem cell blogger Paul Knoepfler, “a nightmare ending to what was originally a fairy tale scientific story.” Called STAP — “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” — Obokata’s discovery originally blew everyone away. And Obokata herself was hailed as an inspiration for young women scientists across the country.
Later, even while Obokata admitted her paper in Nature had been flawed, she claimed STAP worked. She said she had created the cells at least 200 times. “The mistakes do not affect the conclusion of the papers,” she said in April. “The STAP phenomenon has been confirmed on many occasions.”
That was then. Now, Obokata says she can’t figure out what went wrong. “I’ve worked to the limits of my soul in the environment provided to me,” said Obokata, who announced her resignation from Riken. “Now I am just tired and very confused with the results.” Her lawyer added: “She had been conducting verification experiments under a very difficult situation. We hope that for now she can take a break and rest her body and mind.”
The announcements brought to a close a saga that called into question ethical practices at Japan’s renowned Riken, raised concerns about the pressures placed upon young Japanese scientists and sent the international stem-cell community into a bout of soul-searching. Knoepfler just ranked the saga as the stem-cell story of the year. “The STAP mess was a product of many things going wrong,” the blogger wrote. “… Discussion of STAP pointed to more specific, serious problems. Images and data reuse. Plagiarism. Hype. Rush to publish. Unhealthy competition. Gift authorship. And more.”
It also cast doubt on the premise of STAP stem cells themselves, which some authors of the study still contend exist. As of Friday, however, no one at Riken could affirm their existence. “All I can say is that we couldn’t replicate the original results,” Reuters quoted Aizawa saying.
The collateral damage has been immense. In the weeks after the full breadth of the fraudulent work became clear, several prominent Japanese researchers resigned in disgrace. Then Obokata’s mentor, a taciturn but brilliant scientist named Yoshiki Sasai, killed himself, depriving the scientific community of someone doing stunning research in the creation of human eyes with stem cells. The shame of the retraction was apparently been too much. “I am deeply ashamed of the fact that two papers of which I am an author were found to contain multiple errors and, as a result, had to be retracted,” he wrote before he died.
Yoshiki also spoke of his embarrassment at having tutored Obokata. And indeed, others are concerned over the next generation of stem scientists. “What lessons will they and the public take home from all of this?” Knoepfler asked. “… We have to be careful. The risk that STAP-like events pose to our field comes in the form of a possible harmful narrative of the stem cell field fundamentally losing the public trust.”