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Breakthrough STAP stem cell researchers officially guilty of misconduct

| April 1, 2014
lat la stem cells wre
Lead researcher Haruko Obokata (CREDT: Associated Press, via LA Times).
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Earlier this year, a study out of Japan’s RIKEN institute promised a revolutionary approach to creating stem cells, called STAP. Shortly after the approach was published, people began to point out problems with the images in the study; worse, no one was able to replicate the results. Soon a full-scale investigation was launched. Now the verdict, at least from the formal RIKEN investigation, is in: those involved are guilty of at least two counts of misconduct.

Easy-to-create stem cells are the holy grail of regenerative medicine, since they can—in principle—be used to regrow or repair almost any tissue in the body, from livers to lungs to brains and bones. Two papers in Nature and uncountable headlines heralded a technique that required only a brief acid bath to get adult cells in mice to revert to a pluripotent state.

Shortly thereafter, however, the critical backlash began. In the time between the swell of criticism and this release of the official RIKEN statement, it seemed like the problems may have been a result of honest mistakes and the subtleties of Obokata’s technique. Such is apparently not the case any longer.

RIKEN president and Nobel chemist Ryoji Noyori has issued a statement along with the investigation report detailing his plans to not only punish Obokata and her colleagues for their negligence but to use this incident as an excuse to review the entire structure of RIKEN. In particular, how it supports young scientists like Obokata.

It is interesting to note that RIKEN’s release on the state of the investigation actually includes plans for continued efforts to reproduce and verify the STAP stem cell technqiues:

Verification of the STAP phenomena can only be done through scientific inquiry by third parties. To facilitate this process and to encourage active discussion within the scientific community, RIKEN has established its own internal group to verify the results of the STSP experiments. This group will be headed by Dr. Shinichi Aizwa, special advisor to RIKEN, and will share the results of its own rigorous experiments with researchers outside of RIKEN.

Obokata had been silent during the initial swell of criticism, but in the wake of the investigation she is apparently angry. She told the AFP “I will file a complaint against Riken as it’s absolutely impossible for me to accept this.” Other sources, like the Los Angeles Times, report a similarly deviant stance from Obokata.

It’s tempting to see the confirmation of misconduct as the end of a demoralizing story. However, between RIKEN’s continued efforts to verify the STAP phenomena and Obokata’s defiant response, it seems there may be more to come in this story. Gene-ius will of course be keeping an eye out for any further revelations.

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius Editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and amateur naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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