Officials at a prestigious Japanese research institute are expected to take disciplinary action against one of their most prominent scientists, who they say fabricated key parts of a groundbreaking study on stem cells.
Dr. Ryoji Noyori, Nobel laureate and head of the Riken Institute, said that 30-year-old Haruko Obokata and her colleagues deliberately manipulated images of DNA fragments used in their monumental paper on “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP) — a stem cell discovery for which Obokata rose to international fame earlier this year. Institute officials will "rigorously punish relevant people after procedures in a disciplinary committee,” Noyori told AFP.
‘Too Good to be True’
The paper, published in the journal Nature, was initially hailed as the third great breakthrough in the history of stem cell research. Obokata and colleagues purported to show how regular blood cells dipped in acid can be “shocked” into pluripotency and effectively transformed into stem cells. The method would allow researchers to grow specialized cells and transplant tissue in the lab.
"It looks a bit too good to be true, but the number of experts who have reviewed and checked this, I'm sure that it is,” Dr. Chris Mason, a professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, told the BBC in January.
Others, however, remained skeptical. No other lab was able to reproduce the results of the supposedly game-changing study. And in early March, one of its authors called for a retraction of the paper, The Wall Street Journal reported.
In response to this, the institute launched a probe into the credibility of the study’s underlying data. The inquiry eventually revealed that crucial images used in the study were “manipulated or falsified.” The team’s actions amount to “phony research or fabrication," Shunsuke Ishii, head of Riken’s probe committee, said at a press conference Tuesday. ”The manipulation was used to improve the appearance of the results.”
Obokata claims to be outraged over the month-long investigation’s findings and denies any purposeful errors in her research. “I will file a complaint against Riken as it’s absolutely impossible for me to accept this,” she told reporters.
The paper remains online as Nature conducts its own investigation.