A committee investigating problems in papers claiming a method to apply stress to create embryonic like cells has found the lead researcher guilty of scientific misconduct.
There are problems with the paper but so far the researchers are firmly standing behind the validity of the work. They admit the paper had flaws in terms of a diagram and image. Other researchers have had problems replicating the work. The paper will likely be retracted.
The judgement is the latest twist — but not the final word — in the bizarre story of stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency (STAP), a method that researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, still say is able to turn ordinary mature mouse cells into cells that share embryonic stem cells’ capacity to turn into all of the body’s cells.
A six-person committee — three RIKEN scientists, two university researchers and a lawyer — looked at six problems. Four were dismissed as innocent errors, but in two cases the committee found that Obokata had manipulated data in an intentionally misleading fashion. They branded it scientific misconduct.
One problem concerned a figure showing electrophoresis gels. One lane in a diagram had been swapped for another. Obokata says that she made the switch because the other lane was clearer and she did not think it a problem. The committee found the swap to be intentionally misleading manipulation.
The committee also condemned Obokata’s use of an image from her doctoral thesis, in which the image, of a type of tumour called a teratoma, had been used to show the broad-ranging developmental capacity of cells she made by putting pressure on the cell membranes using a pipette. The image in the Nature paper was meant to show the same developmental capacity, but those cells were said to be made by stressing the cells with acid. Obokata said that she mistakenly added the wrong image. But the committee, noting that captions on the image had been changed, judged it to be fraudulent.
The committee repeatedly fended off questions about whether the technology works and, thus, whether STAP cells actually exist. “That is beyond the scope of our investigation,” said committee chair Shunsuke Ishii, a molecular biologist at RIKEN in Tsukuba, Japan.
In her letter, Obokata says that the spliced gel lane did nothing to change the study’s results. “There was no merit in falsifying data, and I had no intention of doing so when I made the image. I only wanted to have a better image,” she writes. Use of the duplicated image was also “a simple mistake” made because the images were similar. Obokata says that she had already identified the mistakes and sent Nature a correction
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