Falsification: Haruko Obokata case

STAP treatment papers

Haruko Obokata was a researcher and laboratory head at the Japanese Riken Center for Developmental Biology. In 2014, she published 2 Nature papers (here and here) in which she described an acid treatment to turn somatic cells (mouse blood cells) into pluripotent stem cells, a method that she named “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” or STAP.

Hours after publication, serious doubts about the validity of the paper were raised on Paul Knoepfler’s blog and PubPeer. Soon, people noticed similarities between photos in the Nature papers and those found in Obokata’s PhD thesis, in which these photos represented different experiments than those described in the Nature papers. In addition, no one was able to reproduce the STAP treatment, which just sounded too simple to be true.

The Riken institute started an investigation and concluded that Obokata manipulated image data or re-used images to represent a different experiment. Both Nature papers were retracted in July 2014.

Retraction notices in Nature. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13598 and https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13599

Obokata was offered to work under supervision to recreate the experiments, but was never able to reproduce her findings. Her PhD was revoked in 2015 (Source: Wikipedia entry on Haruko Obokata).

A tragic effect of these science misconduct allegations is the death of Obokata’s co-author and mentor Yoshiki Sasai. Although he had not been accused of misconduct, the Riken Institute investigation concluded that he could have supervised Obokata better. He is believed to have committed suicide. A sad reminder of the much wider consequences that misconduct accusations can have on innocent coworkers or family members.

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