September 21, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Obokata questioned by police over STAP cell fiasco

Haruko Obokata
Obokata presenting STAP in happier time

Haruko Obokata was reportedly questioned by police in Japan today.

The questioning relates to the STAP cell scandal that led to the retraction of two Nature papers.

As first author of the papers, Obokata and other authors had reported that they could make IPSC-like cells simply via acid or other stress treatment. However, it is now widely believed that the supposed STAP cells were in actuality ES cells (or ES cells mixed with other cell types), and there has been some question over whether the ES cells were technically stolen by someone. Japan times reports:

“She was questioned in response to a complaint filed by another former Riken researcher in January last year, although Riken itself has not reported any crime, the police said…The complainant claimed someone had stolen embryonic stem cells from the laboratory in Kobe in or after April 2011, when Obokata was still employed by Riken.”

Obokata has been in the news recently because she just published a book telling her side of STAP and shifting the blame onto others with claims such as that she was framed. It’s unclear if the police would continue with this potential case, although it sounds like there is at least some circumstantial evidence that something happened:

“A container labeled “ES cells” was found in Obokata’s laboratory during the investigation, but Obokata denied mixing them, intentionally or unintentionally, with the specimens used in her research.”

I asked a scientist in Japan about this development and they had this to say:

“I suppose by publishing her book and profiting massively from  research misconduct she forced the cops’ hand a bit. I still doubt they’ll prosecute, but at least they have to go through the motions of investigating…”

I’ve been critical of the whole STAP affair in the past, but even so the idea of scientists being questioned by police is unsettling.

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