Japanese Researcher Retracts ‘Breakthrough’ Research Paper


On June 4, Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata, the main author of the controversial stimulus triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cell articles, finally agreed to pull her paper from the prestigious British science journal Nature.

The paper, published in Nature’s January issue, introduced her experiment on STAP cells. The validity of this discovery could provide a simple way to create stem cells, and would be a significant breakthrough for biomedical science and clinical applications. Its potential for treating conditions such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease generated considerable excitement.

As a budding researcher, 30-year-old Obokata has drawn immense attention for her studies on STAP. In 2013, she became a unit leader at Riken, Japan’s top developmental biology research center. Her STAP cell paper was endorsed by seven other scientists, who appear to be the paper’s co-authors, including Japan’s award-winning biologist Yoshiki Sasai and Prof. Charles Vacanti at Harvard University.

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In addition to the high-profile Nature article, the fact that Obokata is a women has played a role in her heavy media exposure. As in many other countries, female researchers are a minority in Japan’s science labs.

However, events took an unexpected turn after suspicions of data manipulation and fabrication were raised about her studies. Most co-authors, including her supervisor Sasai, distanced themselves from the actual writing of the article. Obokata was also accused of trying to confuse the lay audience and dodge their responsibilities with jargon at the press release.

Genetic tests by a third party show that the STAP cell lines don’t match the original mouse strains in the experiment, according to the Mainichi Shimbun. This means that the STAP stem cells never existed.

The original recruiting process of Obokata at Riken has also come under scrutiny. It is reported that Riken skipped the usual protocol when including the inexperienced researcher on its team. According to sources at the Japan Times, Rikan’s motivation for her accelerated employment may have been to gain credit, once Obokata published her studies.

A draft report on the hiring suggests plagiarism and false information in her research proposal two years ago. Errors include using an image of mouse cells in her doctoral dissertation as human cells.

Last Wednesday, Vacanti, the last co-author to oppose the retraction, requested that the paper be withdrawn from Nature.

Given Obokata’s former resistance to any doubts about her studies, the fact that she agreed to withdraw her paper may seem odd. Her lawyer told Japanese media that it wasn’t her true intention to drop her defense. She was advised, however, that doing so was the best chance to salvage what once seemed a glittering career.

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