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Misconduct verdict stands for Japanese stem-cell researcher

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski.

The RIKEN institute today confirmed reports out yesterday that it would turn down Haruko Obokata’s request for a re-examination of her case, and advised her to retract two Nature papers she published in January.

In the Nature papers she co-authored, Obokata, a researcher at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, presented a new method to reprogram cells to an embryonic state, which the authors called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) (see ‘Acid bath offers easy path to stem cells‘). The papers awed other stem-cell researchers, but several problems in the data supporting the STAP phenomenon cropped up. (Note: Nature’s news and comment team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.) Based on two of those problems, a RIKEN investigative committee found Obokata guilty of scientific misconduct on 1 April.

Obokata fought back, and at a tearful press conference on 8 April announced she would appeal the judgment (see ‘Biologist defiant over stem-cell method‘).

On 7 May, the committee delivered a report detailing why they believed Obokata’s appeal should be denied. The 21-page document, available on RIKEN’s homepage (PDF, in Japanese), is a point-by-point rejections of Obokata’s defense. For example, the committee had previously deemed an image of an electrophoresis gel that had been made by combining different gel lanes as scientific misconduct. Obokata defended herself by saying that she did not intend to deceive in creating the image. But the committee obtained a review letter, from when an earlier version of the paper had been rejected by Science, that warned Obokata that such composite images need to be clearly marked. The committee concluded that Obokata had acted knowingly in making the composite image.

Today RIKEN officially endorsed this judgment. In a statement, RIKEN president Ryoji Noyori said the institute today notified Obokata and advised her to retract the STAP papers. Noyori says that the allegations of problems in the papers of the committee members would not affect the decision. “The investigation has been carried out properly,” he wrote.

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