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Japanese lab at centre of stem-cell scandal to be reformed

The Japanese research centre where one researcher was found guilty of scientific misconduct and another died in an apparent suicide this year will be renamed and reduced in size, the institute announced today.

The RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe is renowned as a world-leading organization for studying stem cells. But its reputation has been severely damaged by this year’s scandal: CDB biochemist Haruko Obokata was found guilty of scientific misconduct in work that claimed an easy way to make embryonic-like stem cells, but which no-one has been able to replicate. In July, her two Nature papers published on the technique, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, were retracted. In August, Yoshiki Sasai, a senior co-author of the papers and a pioneering researcher at the CDB, was found dead: he left a suicide note that blamed the storm of media attention around the retraction of the two papers.

An independent RIKEN reform committee had recommended in June that the CDB be entirely dismantled. But that call led to a groundswell of support for the centre from stem-cell researchers around the world. They argued that one case of research misconduct did not mean an entire institute should be closed, even if a new centre replaced it. The committee’s proposals for the CDB “may even be more damaging than the incident itself”, noted Maria Leptin, a molecular biologist and director of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany.

On 27 August, RIKEN said that the centre would be renamed, and its number of laboratories cut. It was not clear how many of its 540 staff would lose their jobs, if any. Masatoshi Takeichi, who has led the CDB since it was founded 14 years ago, will step down.

RIKEN also revealed in an interim report that its attempt to replicate the stem-cell findings have been unsuccessful. Histoshi Niwa, who is leading the replication effort and was a co-author on the original STAP papers, said he hadn’t yet managed to generate embryonic-like stem cells after treating mouse spleen cells with acid. The final report is expected by March. Obokata is also working on a replication attempt.


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