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Embattled STAP stem cell researcher: I’m not guilty of miscounduct, technique works

| April 10, 2014
la sci sn stap stem cell haruko obokata respon
Haruko Obokata tears up at her press conference.(CREDIT: Jiji Press / AFP/Getty Images, 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.

Haruko Obokata — recently accused by her employer, Japan’s prestigious RIKEN institute, of research misconduct — has apologized for the mistakes in her research but denies any ill intent. She insists that STAP stem cells are real.

Stem cells, the keystone of regenerative medicine. STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) promised an easy way to create these highly prized cells using a seemingly simple acid bath. The two papers describing STAP were published by Obokata and her colleagues in January in Nature.

In brief: the studies attracted a huge amount of positive attention, which quickly soured as people began to point out flaws in the papers and researchers around the world failed to reproduce Obokata’s results. Shortly thereafter, an official investigation was launched by RIKEN. The institute found her guilty of falsifying and manipulating data and recommended that one of her papers be withdrawn.

Obokata came forward on Wednesday for the first time since the scandal broke. The Wall Street Journal tracked the press conference in a live-blog. Karen Kaplan at the Los Angeles Times has a more reader-friendly summation of what came out of the conference.

According to the WSJ and LA Times, Obokata began by apologizing for her behavior, claiming immaturity and poor judgement rather than any intent to deceive. In spite of her apology and the scandal motivating it, she insisted that she had made STAP stem cells “more than 200 times.” Furthermore, “If anyone wants to watch me create STAP cells, I’ll go anywhere,” she said.

According to the Japan Times, Obokata feels the investigation by RIKEN was unfair — she was only given one chance to speak with the investigative team and did not have the chance to account for the errors in her papers.

As it stands now, regardless of alleged misconduct, it is still unclear whether or not the STAP phenomenon is legitimate. Paul Knoepfler, cell biologist at the University of California, Davis, bypasses the personal drama of this ongoing story in a blog post on the pros and cons of retracting the STAP papers. He argues that the uncertainty regarding STAP is legitimate, but …

The STAP papers are unsalvageable. Simple corrections to the two papers would be too weak to remedy the many issues with them and that approach would hurt Nature‘s reputation. The papersinherently have too many problems that are too serious to be fixable by a correction alone.

And his most incisive point:

STAP technology has little chance for major impact anymore. Even if STAP “works” at some point for someone else, it is not likely to be a high impact discovery. Given the efforts put into trying to get it to work by many strong stem cell teams around the world, it is nearly impossible that STAP can be a broadly applicable technology.

I’ve yet to see anyone else make this argument, but it’s possible that in the echo chamber of science news coverage we’re all still operating under the assumption that our original impression — “This could be breakthrough technology!” — is still correct. Unfortunately, we won’t know the impact of STAP until we know if it’s real or not.

RIKEN has promised to devote significant time to try to independently verify the STAP technique. Whether or not Obokata will be involved in further efforts to verify her conclusions is an open question.

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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