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Prominent Japan Stem Cell Center to Undergo Changes

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 3:55pm
Cynthia Fox

A team at Riken trying to reproduce Obokata’s stem cell work has issued a report saying it “has so far failed to reproduce” it. Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB), the prominent Japan institute where Haruko Obokata was found to commit misconduct on stem cell papers, will be halved, a Riken representative told Bioscience Technology by email.

Riken CDB’s chief, Masatoshi Takeichi, is “likely” to retire, said Jens Wilkinson, a Riken press representative. Furthermore, a team at Riken trying to reproduce Obokata’s stem cell work has issued a report saying it “has so far failed to reproduce” it, Wilkinson said. “They are still working on it, but have not had positive results so far.”

A committee had earlier recommended either shuttering, or dramatically revamping, the CDB after what it called Obokata’s “research misconduct.” But scientists worldwide protested the move as too extreme, given the institute's reputation, and the fact that the misconduct involved so few people.

The above restructuring follows the most tragic development in the Obokata affair: the Aug. 5 suicide of Riken CDB deputy director, Yoshiki Sasai. He had been completely cleared of research misconduct. But, he had been reprimanded for not having unearthed it, as he was Obokata’s supervisor.

The start

It all started with two papers published in Nature on Jan. 29 by a group from Riken and Harvard University. Obokata was lead author on both. The papers detailed a process where normal adult cells were dedifferentiated into stem cells in a dish by adding acid: “Stimulus-Triggered Acquired Pluripotency” (STAP).

While researchers have been slowly proving, via lineage tracing, that dedifferentiation can occur naturally in the body as the result of little-understood signaling cascades prompted by stress, the Nature papers described a radically simpler phenomenon. They claimed normal adult cells could be dedifferentiated via mere acid exposure. If true, it would have outshone the widely hailed dedifferentiation procedure of Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka. That procedure— the induced pluripotent stem cell procedure— involves genetically engineering genes.

But within days of the Nature publications, scientist-bloggers were unearthing flaws in Obokata’s research. As noted, a Riken committee ultimately found her guilty of misconduct, resulting in flawed data. Last month, Nature retracted both papers.

Sasai’s death

On Aug. 5, a month after Nature retracted the papers, Sasai committed suicide. Sasai was a Riken CDB official, and one of the stem cell world’s most gifted, and celebrated, scientists. He left many suicide notes. The contents of most have not been revealed, although the family told Japanese media that parts indicate he was exhausted by relentless media hounding. In addition to global science coverage of the scientific errors, and much global scientific “Twittering,” Japanese media had reported extensively on purported, unproven personal matters involving some STAP researchers.

A committee assigned to investigate the work had also publicly speculated, in documents, about the motives of both Obokata and those who supervised her. Some of those speculations were offered without proof, according to Nature News.

But, at this time, it is still “really hard to understand why this happened” to Sasai, Wilkinson said. Scientists worldwide have expressed shock over the suicide. Sasai was famous, even revered, for his ability to persuade embryonic stem cells to self-assemble into complex neural structures.

The future

For several more months, both Obokata, and a group headed by respected Riken stem cell scientist Hitoshi Niwa, will try to reproduce her stem cell work. March 2015 has been named as an end-date.

Few, if any, Riken CDB scientists will lose their jobs in the restructuring. They will simply be relocated within Riken.

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