Whatever happened to the STAP cell scientists including Haruko Obokata?

Once upon a time this blog and major outlets around the world were regularly writing about a Japanese stem cell researcher named Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子).

Whatever happened to Obokata and the other folks directly involved in STAP cell research?

First, a bit of background because maybe still a few people never heard of STAP cells and Obokata or forgot the key points behind the controversy.

Obokata STAP cell quote.

Haruko Obokata became well known because of her research claiming to make pluripotent stem cells like IPS cells without having to go through one of the usual reprogramming regimens. Instead, she and her coauthors including her mentor Harvard’s Charles Vacanti claimed that a simple procedure of low pH treatment would do the trick to get to pluripotency. They called the resulting cells “STAP cells” or “STAP stem cells”.

Obokata Vacanti
Vacanti and Obokata in happier days before STAP crashed and burned.

Actually, the whole STAP claim was bogus and never able to be replicated. Science did a good job of addressing this situation, but many wondered how the two faulty papers could have been published in the first place in Nature. This blog The Niche played some role in trying to elucidate the facts about STAP cells. I posted a review of the papers here the day they came out and registered growing skepticism about them within just days and weeks.

Over time it became clear, amongst much cloudiness, that Obokata had committed some research misconduct. Embryonic stem cells were likely mixed with the cells supposedly undergoing reprogramming by stress.

The complete facts of the case were never quite resolved, but STAP cells remain one of the most troubling stem cell-related scandals of all time.

So now that some years have gone by, what is Obokata up to these days?

The latest news I could find on her was from last year when there was a report of her doing a photo spread for a magazine. The photos of her were accompanied by some of her own writing.

Before that she was depicted as an online game character in something called Star Galaxy (see images at right).

In addition, she wrote a book at one point telling her side of the STAP story.

Obokata character

What about the other STAP cell paper researchers?

One of Obokata’s supervisors, Yoshiki Sasai, ended up committing suicide likely in large part due to the whole STAP train wreck. Sasai was a brilliant scientist known for his innovative work. His death was a tragic loss. My impression, although we may never know for sure, is that Sasai placed an unbearable and perhaps unfair burden of responsibility on his own back for the STAP mess.

I’m not totally clear on whatever happened to her Harvard mentor Charles Vacanti, but perhaps he retired from science? Before STAP, he was most well known for his production of an “ear” on a mouse, and the “Vacanti mouse” is getting regular attention related to advances in tissue engineering. I don’t see any papers from him in the past five years.

Another researcher on the STAP papers, Teruhiko Wakayama, continues as a very productive stem cell and developmental biology researcher. My sense is that he was not directly involved in the specific problematic issues with STAP.

The most recent quote I could find from Obokata seems like a fitting way to end this post, ”

“But as a person who has been hounded, I felt all the more strongly moved to leave behind an accurate record, so I decided to publish,” she wrote. “The things I viewed through the microscope even now float before my eyes, and when I dream about enjoying the company of people who I’ll never see again seems unreal. This fills my heart with pain.”

Asked if she thinks there is a chance she’ll ever return to the lab and see STAP cells again, she replies, “In my present situation, I can’t easily answer that. I’m not able to do the things that I want to do, and it’s not something I’ll be able to do on my own.”

Is Obokata basically now a minor celebrity in Japan for years to come or is she pretty much fading away? Does anybody still believe in STAP cells? Notably, there still are believers in other controversial kinds of “Sasquatch” stem cells as I call them including VSELs and MUSE cells.

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