February 27, 2024

Japanese stem cell researcher denied appeal

The Icarus-like rise of Japanese stem cell research Haruko Obokata has ended with a gigantic splash.

The Icarus-like rise of Japanese stem cell research Haruko Obokata has ended with a gigantic splash. Ms Obokata was found guilty of scientific misconduct by Japan’s RIKEN Institute after an article and a letter published in Nature were found to be supported by manipulated data. This week RIKEN turned down her appeal for a re-examination of her case and wants her to retract the offending papers. “It is clear that research wrongdoing in the form of fabrication and doctoring was conducted,” a RIKEN committee concluded.

Obokata shot towards the sun when her research was published earlier this year, as her discovery of a new way of creating pluripotent stem cells was astonishingly simple – just bathing them in acid or putting them under pressure. But efforts to replicate her results failed and critics zeroed in on flaws in the data. Ms Obokata still insists that her paper is valid and that her errors were innocent.  

In another twist to the sadly familiar sight of a stem cell scientist caught manipulating data, the waves from the splash of Icarus are rocking other boats. Four of the six members of RIKEN’s investigating committee have been also accused of irregularities in their own research. On 25 April 25, the head of the investigation committee, Shunsuke Ishii, who had declared that “I have never experienced this kind of carelessness” among junior researchers, resigned after manipulated images from two of his own papers were posted on the internet by a whistleblower.

On April 30, Haruhiko Koseki and Yoichi Shinkai, both of RIKEN, were accused of data manipulation in some of their papers by a whistleblower. On the same day, the Asahi Shimbun detected irregularities in some images created by Tetsuya Taga, the vice president of Tokyo Medical and Dental University. He was cleared after a day-long investigation.

Not even 2012 Nobel Prize laureate Shinya Yamanaka has escaped collateral damage after Ms Obokata’s fall from grace. On April 28 he was forced to deny that he had manipulated images in a paper published in 2000.

In the wake of these allegations, RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori has ordered staff to check all publications for doctored data – which could amount to as many as 20,000 papers

Michael Cook
Creative commons
academic misconduct
stem cells