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Stem-cell scientist loses doctorate over STAP controversy

9 November 2015
Appeared in BioNews 827

In the aftermath of the STAP stem-cell controversy, Waseda University has revoked the doctorate degree of the stem-cell scientist Haruko Obokata.

Obokata's work, originally conducted in RIKEN's Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) and published in January 2014 in two separate Nature papers, described a phenomenon known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) and claimed to reprogramme adult cells into an embryonic stem-cell status using an acid bath.

But soon after the publication of this thought-to-be groundbreaking concept, the data were questioned, triggering controversy. A number of mistakes, including misleading photograph captions and plagiarism, were found in the two publications leading to their retraction after six months (see BioNews 757).

Later, in October 2014, Waseda University started processes to revoke Obokata's doctoral thesis according to their degree guidelines. With the major issue being the plagiarised content and scientific inaccuracies, Obokata was asked to revise her doctoral work within a year, and to retrain in thesis-writing and research ethics.

At the end of this deadline in October 20312, Waseda reported that although they offered adequate help to Obokata for submitting the reviewed thesis, the required level of revision was not achieved. The University president, Professor Kaoru Kamata, announced the finalised decision of the graduate dean's committee to revoke Obakata's PhD.

Obokata criticised the decision as unfair and her lawyer, Mr Hideo Miki, said the University reached this position through social pressure rather than academic reasons.

Earlier, a team of scientists from RIKEN's CDB, using a whole-genome sequencing approach for analysing the samples of the study, found that, in the original studies, the cells had been contaminated with embryonic stem cells.

RIKEN had previously concluded that 'this was an act of research misconduct involving fabrication'. Obokata, without giving up her position that the STAP cells exist, publicly apologised at the time.

An international effort to reproduce the STAP phenomenon, amounting to more than 100 attempts, has been unsuccessful and scientists are now fully convinced that an acid bath cannot reprogramme cells into an embryonic stem-cell fate (see BioNews 831).

15 February 2016 - by Kirsty Oswald 
The world-renowned Karolinska Institute is at the centre of a scandal surrounding the conduct of stem-cell surgeon Paulo Macchiarini...
28 September 2015 - by Rebecca Carr 
Researchers investigating the purported creation of 'STAP' cells have confirmed that the pluripotent cells were in fact derived from embryonic stem (ES) cells...
1 September 2014 - by Dr Nicoletta Charolidi 
Efforts to replicate the STAP cell findings have not been successful so far, the RIKEN Institute has reported...
11 August 2014 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
A leading Japanese scientist who was embroiled in the STAP cell controversy has been found dead in an apparent suicide....
16 June 2014 - by Dr Greg Ball 
The controversy surrounding the creation of so-called STAP cells continues with a report recommending the closure of the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology, the institute where the research was carried out...
12 May 2014 - by Purvi Shah 
Japan's RIKEN Center has announced that an appeal by stem-cell scientist, Dr Haruko Obokata, found guilty of research misconduct in relation to her claims of converting blood cells to stem cells using an 'acid bath', has been rejected...
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