July 11, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

RIKEN Report Is Virtual Acid Bath of Criticism for Obokata

Haruko Obokata, STAP cells
Haruko Obokata presented these spheres as containing STAP cells.

RIKEN Institute in Japan has formally announced the complete findings of its investigation into the STAP cell research,  Haruko Obokata, and Nature papers.

RIKEN almost entirely blamed Obokata for the STAP mess in this report and they didn’t mince words. The RIKEN report alleged that Obokata had engaged in two instances of “research misconduct” as discussed by Retraction Watch.

Notably, the report addressed only six specific potential problematic issues when there are many more key areas of concern that it did not tackle. You know something’s bad when “only six “problems is a statement that makes sense as six problems is certainly a lot one would think.

More bad news came from MarketWatch quoting the RIKEN report and press conference:

  • Obokata “”acted in a manner that can by no means be permitted” when she manipulated “the image data of two different gels and using data from two different experiments.”
  • “Given the poor quality of her laboratory notes it has become clearly evident that it will be extremely difficult for anyone else to accurately trace or understand her experiments,”

The AP said of the investigation’s findings “They said researcher Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the paper in Nature, had manipulated or falsified images of DNA fragments used in the research.” and they quoted Shunsuke Ishii, the head of the committee set up to investigate allegations, “The manipulation was used to improve the appearance of the results”.

Obokata will appeal.

Obokata’s Japanese collaborators and mentors were not entirely spared in the RIKEN report either according to the same AP article:

“The scientists said three other co-authors of the papers had not falsified the data but were still “gravely responsible” for failing to fully verify the research findings. The discrepancies in the data showed up as anomalous lines in an image of DNA fragments.”

It is unclear at this time how this Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as Obokata’s American mentor and senior author on the Nature STAP article, Dr. Charles Vacanti, will handle this situation and the new developments. I just emailed him asking if he has a comment.

What comes next?

In addition to a formal appeal, Obokata may well return fire via litigation against RIKEN as MarketWatch said “Emails to Dr. Obokata were returned by a lawyer who said he was representing Dr. Obokata.”

What about Nature? 

It won’t comment at this time, but really does it have any choice left but to eventually editorially retract the papers?

There will never be unanimous author consent for retraction and I believe that Nature cannot accept a mere correction or let the papers stand as is with RIKEN indicating that misconduct went into them. So what other choice is left?

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