Japanese author of controversial papers denies wrongdoing and stands by results as testing of her protocol begins.
The lead author of two hotly debated stem-cell papers made a tearful plea for forgiveness last week after her employer found her guilty of misconduct. Haruko Obokata, a researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, struggled to answer questions about errors in the papers, which described how simple stressors such as acid or pressure could reprogram mature cells into an embryonic-like state. But that did not stop her from insisting that the reports were not fraudulent and that the phenomenon described in them is real.
Her comments have left observers wondering about the outcome of a controversy that has raged since the papers were published in Nature in January1, 2. Clarity on the claimed creation of STAP cells (for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) now awaits three key events, all expected in the next few months. Stem-cell scientists hope that one of these — a replication attempt based on Obokata’s protocol, by Hitoshi Niwa, a co-author of the papers who also works at the CDB — will be conclusive.
“This looks like a rigorous protocol that hopefully will settle the question of whether pluripotent STAP cells can be generated or not,” says Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem-cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was shown Niwa’s protocol by Nature. (Nature’s news and comment team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)
Problems with the papers, including accusations that Obokata had plagiarized passages of text and used duplicated images, arose soon after publication. Moreover, other groups said that they were unable to reproduce the results.
RIKEN decided to investigate, and on 1 April reported a number of uncomfortable findings (see Nature http://doi.org/sbb; 2014). Two problems were deemed misconduct: the re-use of an image that Obokata had included in her 2011 doctoral dissertation to describe different kinds of cells from those described in the STAP papers, and an image of an electrophoresis gel that had been spliced into another image, making it appear to be part of a different experiment.
Obokata fought back. In a statement on 1 April, she accused the RIKEN committee of giving her no chance to explain how those mistakes were made. Then, on 8 April, she submitted an appeal asking RIKEN to withdraw the charges and assemble another committee to investigate. At a press conference she held on 9 April, she passionately made her case and stated that she had succeeded in creating STAP cells more than 200 times. She blamed the misconduct findings on personal failings. “My immaturity and lack of training, it’s really shameful,” she said. “But with my lawyer’s help, I do think I’ll be able to dispel these suspicions.”
Written By: David Cyranoski
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