Did NHK Violate Rights of Obokata (小保方 晴子) on STAP?

Obokata press conference
Obokata late press conference.

The Japanese public broadcasting system, NHK, has been accused by scientist Haruko Obokata of violating her human rights.

Obokata was the primary researcher involved in the STAP cell fiasco in which two ultimately retracted Nature papers contained duplicated, plagiarized, and manipulated data. She was certainly not the only researcher on those papers, but overall she has been accused of having the most central role in the STAP problems. Obokata left RIKEN late in 2014.

During the height of the STAP cell mess the Japanese media hounded Obokata and other STAP cell authors including Yoshiki Sasai, who ultimately committed suicide. From accounts in Japan, the STAP cell story was on the equivalent of the nightly news and on the front of national newspapers and tabloids almost every day for a time.

For instance, NHK was incredibly persistent with pursing Obokata and now Obokata has said that they violated her human rights in a complaint to the Japanese Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization or BPO. Obokata asserts that NHK violated her rights in numerous ways including accusing her of stealing embryonic stem cells and she sustained injuries while being pursued by NHK. BPO will be investigating these and other assertions by Obokata against NHK.

During the STAP cell mess last year, it seems because I was covering the STAP cell claims and science here on this blog, many members of the Japanese media emailed and called me. I can understand that they were looking for information and perspectives, but it went out of control in certain cases. Some, including reporters saying they were from NHK, were very aggressive with me. They some persistently called me at work and even at home in the middle of the night.

I had decided to not talk with them because of their aggressiveness and their tendency to focus on negative, personal stories rather than the science and facts, but they wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Several pursued me for comment at conferences too. I don’t have direct knowledge of what happened with Obokata and NHK, but my sense is that the media went way out of bounds on STAP and made it personal.

13 thoughts on “Did NHK Violate Rights of Obokata (小保方 晴子) on STAP?”

  1. Sorry to resurrect an old discussion…

    Mike, you say that Miss Obokata put brought a lot of this on herself. The question is to what extent, and did the press treat her fairly? I think she has a fair point that the press did not respect her privacy, and probably she can seek for some compensation from NHK and other media houses.

    I’m faculty at a Japanese university, and what bothers me here is that all responsibility was put on Obokata. PhD theses in Japan are public — you can find a copy of each Japanese doctoral thesis at the National Diet Library. This is why it’s not really a problem to dig up someones thesis and discuss whether or not parts of it are plagiarized. What bothers me is that all the blame on plagiarizing parts of the thesis was put on Obokata. Anyone who opens up her thesis notices that it is not really written like a PhD thesis — the structure and format simply don’t match to what is expected from an academic dissertation. Did she not have a supervisor? If a supervisor did his/her job, shouldn’t this supervisor also take some responsibility of what is written in the thesis? There were several persons on her PhD examination committee, one of whom (Dr C. Vacanti) has said in public that he never even was given a copy of the thesis (http://www.nature.com/news/stem-cell-method-faces-fresh-questions-1.14895). If thesis examination committees are composed of people that have never even seen the thesis, shouldn’t we at least in part blame also the institutions that set up such puppet committees?

    We can still find some news articles from more than a year ago stating that Waseda would systematically scan for plagiarism 230 or so PhD theses from the same institute that granted Obokata’s thesis. Copy-pasting was pointed out in many other theses (see comments in http://retractionwatch.com/2014/04/08/waseda-university-checking-dissertations-for-plagiarism-in-wake-of-stap-stem-cell-misconduct-finding/#more-19690), too, but the press simply stopped reporting on this. I think Waseda never published any statements on the results of whatever screening they did… Why didn’t the press proceed reporting on this aspect of the story, but instead focused solely on Obokata? This is one of the reasons I feel Obokata has a fair point in scrutinizing the press.

    PS. The Japanese press is regulated and censored (http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/02/13/japan-slips-in-press-freedom-rankings/). I wouldn’t be surprised if the government had put some pressure on the media to forget about the PhD theses…

  2. Adding opinion & commentary to the sector developments in real time via posts and discussion has opened up the world of science to many interested in the outcomes – not just the community itself but to a wider audience.

    I applaud Paul for addressing issues which require reporting and presenting positions. That’s what is required IMO.

    I don’t believe anything should be censored nor out-of-bounds if it means achieving scientific clarity which leads to patient outcomes. To investigate a claim one must go to the source and in cases where the science is in doubt independent review. If there is no appropriate oversight the community has an obligation to validate the work, however it can imo. By not doing so appropriately it opens up the question of why? Transparency at this stage in the development of the science is important, given the history.

    On the STAP issue, I’ve stated previously that imo the coverage of the issue was far too intense from all sides and personally I lost interest early. Perhaps for a scientist or someone in Japan it was far more important an issue.

    I was very saddened by the suicide of a great developmental biologist whom I had been following as a result. That I think was a terrible outcome – more so than the false data.

    Paul is a champion for evidence based science – that is cool and I agree. Would that include going head to head with a known stem cell clinic operating overseas to get to the bottom of the issues and design a clinical trial which would then be run with oversight? Is that a natural extension of the discussion to-date? A necessary next step? Or is it only from a vantage point of social media that we should speak?


  3. Paul,

    I’ve always viewed your blog as bringing up and identifying the issues and concerns that many of us have about getting stem cell therapy right. Every stem cell biologist I’ve ever known is deeply concerned about creating next-generation approaches that will change the world for millions. I, myself, got into stem cell biology as I met a young man who was paralyzed shortly after my Grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s, and the focus of my LIFE became neural stem cells. Later, when my Dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I switched to figuring out ways of creating oligodendrocyte progenitors in hopes of creating something that might help. As I learned more about other demyelinating disorders, I widened my gaze to be more inclusive. My story is not unique. A lot of us want to desperately create therapeutics, but we also want to be completely sure that they work and they’re safe. We don’t want to sell false hopes as those we are trying to serve deserve our very best efforts. We’re just trying to do it right, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that.

    Keep your chin up, Mate! You make a difference!

  4. Masayo Takahashi

    Paul has a wide perspective and is always very neutral with the high level scientific background, that the reason I write something in this blog. Also I can see his patient oriented attitude.

    Paul, I apologize (as a Japanese) about the trouble that Japanese media caused you. It originated from the careless input toward them without patient oriented mind by Obokata-san and Sasai-sensei although they did not have any malicious aim.

    1. @Masayo,
      Thank you for the kind words.
      Last year things got very carried away on the media front on STAP. I appreciate your comment on this.
      It’s important for the media to realize that scientists are people too. Many in the media round the world (not unique to Japan) will pursue a story to such an extreme as to go after the people involved.

  5. ALSadvocate,

    First, I am very sorry if you are suffering from ALS or have a loved one with that insidious disease. I’ve lost 2 friends to it, and I understand your frustration. I’ve worked in the biomedical sciences for a long time, and, believe me, we’d all like to see therapeutics that are safe and effective.

    I don’t believe that Paul is a hater at all. Far from it. I have been in stem cells for a while, and I think that what Paul advocates (and I advocate as well) is that we all proceed through the logical steps that all therapeutics need to go through. Having a really solid grasp on the mechanism of action of a therapy is important, and the literature is still quite murky in that regard. For example, administered mesenchymal stem cells such as those isolated from bone marrow or adipose tissue might be exerting a lot of their effects through the cytokines and growth factors they secrete, leading to better regulation of the immune system. If that’s the case, why not simply administer cocktails of these compounds that are manufactured under regulated, quality-controlled conditions? A good deal of the excitement regarding stem cell therapies is due to anecdotal stories, and, for this to become a valid approach, greater understanding and documentation is necessary. I do not view the FDA as “bad guys”…..They’re trying to do the job of making sure that approaches are safe and effective. I think that’s what people like Paul and I would like to see, as well. Also, with the extreme heterogeneity of current processing techniques techniques, modes of administration, and so on, some sort of standards have to be set for stem cell therapy to become a regulated, safe, and effective alternative. The field is simply too diverse and scattered for anyone to really definitively make any sorts of claims about whether it works or not. For example, if someone sees good, strong results, is that because stem cells therapy, itself, works, or is it because the particular way that clinic did it worked? We have to have uniform, accepted standard before we can know for sure.

    As for Obokata, she brought a lot of this on herself. That she fabricated data as far back as her doctoral dissertation is clearly indicative of some major problems. It may be that the Japanese media is pushing her too hard, but, had she not done what she did, this never would have happened. With the excitement that stem cell biology has provoked in patients and patient advocates, I do believe that stem cell biologists who might be working toward therapeutic applications have a responsibility to be as transparent and honest as possible as so many pin their hopes on our work. I hope you understand, and, again, I am most sincerely sorry that you or a loved one is suffering from ALS….I really am.

    1. @Mike,
      Thanks for your comment and the support. I get the frustration with how our approval system works and how it is so slow and I think that is probably behind the angry comment from ALSadvocate.

  6. Paul Knoepflerr, you are the biggest hater out there in the science world. You hate on everyone. You hate patient advocates, hate clinics who provide much needed treatments when other medicine fails, hate responsible politicians when they pass legislation that directly helps patients. Are you denying that your blog did not contribute towards the bitter hatred against Obokata?
    People like you do nothing but hate.hate..hate. I hope your life is not as miserable for you to continue to spew out such hatred. Dont be surprised by the consequences, you are part of the bunch who provoke it and sustain it, FYI. We patients struggle every day to move our cause an inch, only to see it recede by a mile because of haters like you. I can guarantee much of the stuff you write is not even based on facts, but just the poison pouring out of you.

    By the way, if you have not realized it yet, do you not see that many of the clinical trials do the exact same thing that who you call as quacks and charlatans have been doing for years and showing great success. So you guys just repeat what the “unlicensed clinics” do and call it valid clinical trials?

    1. @ALSadvocate,
      I’m actually a big fan of patient advocates.
      For example, my first Stem Cell Person of the Year Award that I fund myself went to patient advocate Roman Reed, who has responsibly advocated for evidence-based medicine to help patients.
      The two annual stem cell ethics meetings we have had here at UC Davis School of Medicine and that I have helped to organize have been very inclusive of patient advocates including, for example, ALS patient advocate Ted Harada as a speaker. These meetings and this blog are meant to include diverse audiences including patients in the discussion. Last year’s meeting that included Ted and other patient advocates was very positive and brought people together in a constructive, respectful dialogue. No hate. Just increased dialogue, respect, and understanding on all sides.
      The clinics that you mention are designed to make profits above all else and some are particularly predatory on vulnerable patients. They don’t have FDA approval and in many cases there’s little if any science behind what they are doing. The doctors involved are not specialists in the diseases and conditions that many of the patients have who come to the clinic. That seems risky to me. I’m not a fan of that kind of practice overall so I blog about it to increase transparency. Their clinical trials are in reality not the same as standard FDA-approved, phased clinical trials.
      As to STAP, I kept it factual and focused on the science here on this blog. I didn’t go after the scientists involved. I also invited some of the key STAP authors including Obokata to do either interviews or even guest posts here out of balance. Some took advantage of that invitation, while others didn’t.

  7. I’m afraid she initiated her own witch hunt and whilst I don’t condone the sensationalist side of the press, that animal is out there and you have to be ready for it – she was fine when it was working to her advantage. But I am shocked to hear that you were hounded too! That’s unforgivable and you have my sympathies.

    Unfortunately, it seems efficacy cannot be divorced from the toxicity in the press – same mechanism of action – so be careful where you choose to administer it.

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