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Investigation finds misconduct in acid bath stem cell research

7 April 2014
Appeared in BioNews 749

An investigation has found that the lead author of the widely reported 'breakthrough' stem cell papers is guilty of misconduct.

The investigation, carried out by Japan's research institute The RIKEN Center, declared that Dr Haruko Obokata had fabricated her work in an intentionally misleading fashion. The fabrication involved reusing images from different experiments that had previously been presented in her doctoral thesis.

'Actions like this completely destroy data credibility', said Dr Shunsuke Ishii, head of the investigative committee. 'There is no doubt that she was fully aware of this danger. We've therefore concluded this was an act of research misconduct involving fabrication'.

The RIKEN committee looked at six problems with the published data and concluded that two images were intentionally misleading. One image of DNA analysis was found to be spliced together from two pictures, and an image of a tumour from Dr Obokata's thesis was reused.

Dr Obokata has stood by the results, and will challenge the findings of the committee. She said: 'I'm filled with shock and indignation, if things stay as they are, misunderstanding could arise that the discovery of STAP cells itself is forgery. That would be utterly unacceptable'.

The papers under investigation were published in Nature in January and reported a simple technique for generating pluripotent stem cells. The scientists reported that mature animal cells could be reprogrammed to stem cells by placing them in stressful conditions, such as an acid bath. This was described as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, and the cells were dubbed STAP cells.

Following publication of the papers, questions were raised by other stem cell experts over irregularities in the data and images, with many research groups failing to reproduce the results.

The investigation has not concluded whether STAP cells exist, but said it planned to launch a thorough verification process to see if they were real.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
'Fabricated' stem cell paper technique may yet be proven valid
Wired |  1 April 2014
Japan finds fraudulent steps in 'breakthrough' stem cell paper
Reuters |  1 April 2014
Japan lab says stem cell research falsified
Mail Online (Associated Press) |  2 April 2014
Report on STAP Cell Research Paper Investigation
RIKEN (press release) |  1 April 2014
Stem cell scientist 'guilty of misconduct'
BBC News |  1 April 2014
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