Biologist defiant over stem-cell method

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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 January12. 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
continue to source article at nature.com

20 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by alf1200:

      That’s all well and good and I don’t understand a thing. But ,,,,Damn, she’s cute…..

      Maybe that is the problem. Male supervisors have been thinking with their dicks rather than their brains for too long, and she has overrated herself or underrated the establishment.

      On the other hand if she really did stumble on adult cells magically reverting to stem cells in a hostile environment, then she had to scramble to publish. Cutting corners like fudging a few diagrams is naughty, but not double/triple/quadruple checking improbable results might be fatal.

      • In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

        In reply to #1 by alf1200:

        That’s all well and good and I don’t understand a thing. But ,,,,Damn, she’s cute…..

        Maybe that is the problem. Male supervisors have been thinking with their dicks rather than their brains for too long, and she has overrated herself or underrated the establishment.

        Yes, the women have it so much easier in science and engineering jobs; just show a little T&A and you win the argument. And yes that was another attempt at lame humor, I found the two comments about her looks sexist and offensive and an example of why it’s as a rule a lot harder to be a woman in science even now.

        BTW, I’m not defending this woman in particular; just saying to blame her errors on the fact that she’s an attractive woman is an example of sexism.

        • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

          In reply to #1 by alf1200:

          That’s all well and good and I don’t understand a thing. But ,,,,Damn, she’s cute…..

          BTW, I’m not defending this woman in particular; just saying to blame her errors on the fact that she’s an attractive woman is an example of sexism.

          I’m not sure that’s what GFA was saying but hey… I do agree about one thing. We as men, tend to make entirely too much of a woman’s appearance. As if there was something special about a good looking woman when objectively speaking, physical beauty is actually the most common thing in the world (both for men and women incidentally).

          To say that she is “cute” is not offensive, it’s just irrelevant. It doesn’t say anything pertinent about her as a person or a scientist. And as a joke, it’s not funny enough to be worth the controversy this kind of comment will usually generate.

          • In reply to #6 by NearlyNakedApe:

            I’m not sure that’s what GFA was saying

            It seemed pretty obvious to me. He was saying that a reason she has done such poor quality work is that she has been getting by on her looks. If I was somehow mistaken in that interpretation I’ll apologize but I don’t think I was.

            To say that she is “cute” is not offensive, it’s just irrelevant.

            I think it can be both. I’m certainly not claiming it’s some terrible crime or even that I’ve never done worse. In fact I think one reason I’m aware of these issues is I’m somewhat analogous to a reformed smoker or alcoholic, I’m aware of the temptations to do this kind of thing because I used to do it (often make irrelevant comments based on looks of women) myself.

            But while I don’t think it’s terrible or anything I do think it’s worth commenting on. My real point, which I thought would be obvious but apparently not to some people is that the reality is that women still have it rough in science and engineering. I know from talking to women scientists and engineers and from what the data tells us. i only had to do a two second google search to find lots of articles like this:

            Women’s Progress In Science And Engineering Jobs Has Stalled For Two Decades

            So as people who believe in reason and critical thinking it’s up to us to set the tone for women in these fields. And commenting on any article that has an attractive woman in the picture about how hot she is is or how she’s doing bad research because she’s attractive is the wrong tone to set. It’s a minor thing, I completely agree, but it’s one more way that girls and young women reading these articles will be reinforced with the message that society judges them more on looks than on their brains.

        • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

          In reply to #1 by alf1200:

          That’s all well and good and I don’t understand a thing. But ,,,,Damn, she’s cute…..

          Maybe that is the problem. Male supervisors have been thinking with their dicks rather than their brains for too long, and she has overrated her…

          You are rude. I was joking. Maybe you are the sexist one….

  1. Intriguing; I don’t know if April the first has any cultural meaning in Japan, but I do know that scientific methodology and disciplines apply universally.

    I hope she’s telling the truth about the replication, or that she made a genuine mistake, because if not, she’s finished as a scientist I’m afraid.

    Science is, and has to be, an extremely difficult row to hoe.

    • In reply to #2 by Stafford Gordon:

      Intriguing; I don’t know if April the first has any cultural meaning in Japan,

      All those “April 1st”s don’t help. … Maybe the whole thing is a “Nature” joke.

    • In reply to #9 by alf1200:

      “Yes, the women have it so much easier in science and engineering jobs; just show a little T&A and you win the argument.”

      Now THIS is a real crappy thing to say………

      It was sarcasm. As would have been obvious to anyone with basic reading comprehension since I wrote “And yes that was another attempt at lame humor” as the next sentence.

  2. As an ugly aging man I’d love to get involved in the preceding exchange, but isn’t the self correcting nature of scientific research the really important thing here. If the researcher in question has played fast and loose with rules then she will be slapped down, however if further studies show she had, in fact, discovered something important then others will build on it to the advantage of everyone. That’s how proper progress comes, often from renegades who may or may not be right, but then the hard work of professionals brings the truth home.

  3. Moderators’ message

    ** “And commenting on any article that has an attractive woman in the picture about how hot she is is or how she’s doing bad research because she’s attractive is the wrong tone to set.” **

    We agree and we will continue to remove such comments. Can everyone now leave this side-topic there, and not continue the derail of this thread, please.

    Thank you.

    The mods

    • In reply to #14 by Moderator:

      Moderators’ message

      “And commenting on any article that has an attractive woman in the picture about how hot she is is or how she’s doing bad research because she’s attractive is the wrong tone to set.”

      We agree and we will continue to remove such comments. Can everyone now leave this side-topic…

      Jeez, you guys have been pretty quick to come down on OT lately. IMO talking about issues like sexism and the issues women have in science is pretty relevant to an article like this. Not that I planned on commenting further on it anyway, I just get pissed off when people tell me to do something I plan to do anyway and then my normal reaction is to want to do it.

  4. At least one ‘feedback’ commenter has asked to have photos removed from articles. Make it moot.

    Symphony’s are now doing more blind auditions – result > more women players, including “men’s” instruments (brass).

  5. Did anyone notice the promise of pluripotency?

    If you could shock adult cells back into being pluripotent then you win regardless of all else. This is a science scene well worth watching as to the ultimate outcome.

    [First sentence slightly edited by moderator to remove risk of further derail away from topic of OP.]

  6. If this technique has worked for the scientist “over 200 times”, it should be a shoo in to be replicated and validated.

    I am rooting for the success of the technique. The scientist seems to need a bit more training, however, she seems to have discovered something that could unlock an entire field of research. Training, authority, and advanced degrees are NOT prerequisites to changing the world. I hope the technique is validated and ends up revolutionizing the field.

  7. Before my current career (which is in a related field) I spent nearly 20 years working in the laboratory as a Medical Laboratory Scientist (formerly Medical Technologist) in various clinical settings. The last 5 years of that phase of my career I worked in a stem cell laboratory where we harvested, processed and cryopreserved stem cell fractions from cord bloods and then assayed CD34 counts and viability of the stem cells via flow cytometry. The original technique we used was very cumbersome and time consuming. Just processing a handful of specimens could take 8 hours or more. We started researching new processing and harvesting techniques, both to increase viability and result in better storage. We ultimately adopted a widely used technique which differed in small but significant ways from the previous method. We spent almost two years refining this new technique and after some time began yielding better recoveries (viability). Along the way the temptation was there to personalize our technique a bit based on our experience with several methods. Indeed the technique itself was dependent on personal judgment at every step. Should I go deeper into the buffy coat? Should we add a drop more DMSO if we do? We would discuss our methods within “the method” often. But as far as I know no one strayed outside the lines too much. And if we did it would be betrayed by the viability testing at the end (viability testing and [stem cell] recovery is seen as a kind of ‘final exam’ on technique). My ultimate point is as experienced scientists we were allowed a bit of wiggle room but we all understood that rigorous standards had to be maintained. Though some exist of course, science is often unkind to mavericks.

    As an aside, during this kind of work we worked entirely under pressurized hoods dressed head to toe in what most would view as biohazard garb. We did a complete surgical scrub before gowning up, masking and wearing hair covers. It was nearly impossible to determine the sex of the scientist next to you. And though standard mores would take place outside the lab, much as they do outside of the operating theater, my experience was a professional environment was maintained far more often than not.

  8. This is a very unfortunate situation for such young and apparently talented researcher, and in my point of view, is also a consequence of the hyper-competitive nature of the scientific research nowadays (mostly dictated by USA and influenced by its economical budget restrictions). An interesting article from Harold Warmus and colleagues in the journal PNAS this year (March 18, 2014, “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”) illustrates very well some of the problems that the high pressure to publish science in a competitive and careless rush can bring to academic research. The results can be catastrophic for the researcher, for the scientific community, and for the public credibility that we all need to support our scientific activities. I am not justifying, by any means, any misconduct that may or may not be involved in this case. I am just offering an opportunity to take in consideration several points that contribute to set up a highly conservative, low-creative, hyper-competitive, and dangerous style of doing science that permeates the mentality of the scientific community out there (which again, is dictated and reinforced by USA policies and its economical landscape). Among many problems cited by this article, I can summarize as follow: 1. Peer review issues (luxury science journals have “professional reviewers” rather than active scientists in their editorial boards – these reviewers are looking for “headline punchers” rather than solid, and well-sustained research); 2. The job market for science is super-saturated and can no longer accommodate long-term/slow-pace researchers, and the demand for fast-pace/high throughput research is very high (with minimal time for elaborating or corroborating the research prior to publicizing it); 3. The way science is publicized is misguiding. First, although the findings on Nature corroborate previous models in Developmental Biology that have been around for decades (the “Epigenetic Landscape” and how cells reprogram their states under environmental stress), the press treated the subject as “ground breaking”; second, knowing how to interpret the findings would help to understand that reproducibility could be an issue, which could avoid publishing misguiding “novel” findings or findings that simply can not be repeated (and therefore, being useful for biomedical applications, for instance).
    There are many layers of complexity in this topic, and I just offered few reflections on it. If you have an opportunity, take a look at the article on PNAS, it will help you out to situate where the problem is, and how this unfortunate situation is, in fact, a consequence of the way we do science (in my opinion).

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