Health and Medicine

Japanese Government Panel Finds ‘Breakthrough’ Stem Cell Study Used Falsified Data

April 1, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Creator: Carol N. Ibe And Eugene O. Major

This past January, a study was published in Nature from Japan’s Riken Center for Developmental Biology along with American colleagues. Lead author Haruko Obokata claimed to have developed a new way to generate stem cells by dipping regular mouse blood cells into an acid bath. The technique was described as being faster and cheaper than traditional methods of inducing cells into pluripotency, which garnered a great deal of attention (even by us) and was regarded as “remarkable” and “a game changer” by her fellow developmental biologists. The field of stem cells is booming right now and new potentially life-saving applications are being developed all the time, which certainly would have been aided by a faster way to obtain the stem cells. The announcement left many full of hope. And then the other shoe dropped.

In mid-February, Riken began to question the findings of the study and created a panel of scientists to investigate. This panel included some who worked for government-funded Riken, as well as other experts who didn’t. The article, which was sure to receive a great deal of attention, used images that were incorrectly described within the paper. Because of issues with other labs unable to reproduce the results, some of the methods and data were questionable, which warranted investigation from the panel. Those trying to replicate the experiment acknowledged they were using different kinds of cells, which may have played into the inability to get any results.

At the time, it was not clear if the images used within the paper were intentionally wrong or were a mix-up during the publication process. Co-author Charles Vacanti from Harvard believes that was the case and contacted Nature in hopes of getting a correction. Also, problems with the paper don’t necessarily mean that the research was bad, and a spokesman for Riken claimed that they were standing by the actual results, despite the other problems. 

It was announced today that the panel has concluded that the study’s data has been falsified. They are accusing Obokata of research malpractice, claiming that she knowingly manipulated the images of DNA fragments that were published in the paper. While Obokata’s employment status could not be verified, the panel would seek disciplinary action and would call for a retraction of the paper.

Obokata strongly denies the allegations that she forged data and stated that she plans to appeal the decision. Any official action regarding discipline or retraction will not occur until after the appeal. While the panelists are squarely blaming Obokata, they don’t believe the intent was malicious. They thought that the 30-year-old researcher didn’t know any better and cites that she may have lacked proper leadership during her training.

Riken has stated that despite the apparent misconduct on Obokata’s part, they will dedicate several months to determining if the findings themselves are legitimate.

On the surface, this seems like an example of science gone wrong. And, to a minor extent, it is. Not only did Riken spend a great deal of time and money on the initial study, but even more had to be spent on the investigation and to verify the results. Science in Japan is still somewhat of a Good Ol Boys Club, meaning that young, attractive female scientists like Obokata are in fairly short supply. A finding of research misconduct against her could hinder other young women from pursuing careers in scientific research. It also gives the illusion that scientists can make up whatever they want and people will believe it, which is good fuel for those who are untrusting of scientists. But it’s not really as bleak as all that.

This is more clearly an example of scientists doing science right, and Riken should be absolutely applauded for how they conducted this matter. Almost immediately after the study was published, they began to investigate the shortcomings of the paper. They were public and vocal about their concerns, illustrating their desire to separate themselves from bad science, even though the study originated in their facility. This is the best form of science self-regulating and weeding out incorrect information.

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