It was one of the largest stem-cell ‘breakthroughs’ in recent history, but now Japanese findings have been retracted due to major errors, with a lasting impact felt on Japan.
Japanese scientists had made the amazing claim that stem cells could be produced in a quick, cost-effective and ethical way, simple by dipping blood cells in acid. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it most likely was. The scientists in question have now released a retraction apologising for multiple errors in the initial report. The news has led Nature, the publisher of the findings, to review its procedures when checking scientific papers.
Stem cells are hugely important to medical research, and research is going into various healing methods they may be used for, such as restoring sight or repairing damage after a heart attack. Many got excited about the acid bath stem-cell findings, calling the news a ‘game changer’ and ‘a major scientific discovery’ earlier in the year.
Quickly fell apart
It didn’t take long for experts to finding errors in the report, with some parts being blatantly lifted from earlier work, and leading scientists struggling to reproduce the documented results in their own labs.
The Riken research institute led the investigation which found that Japanese scientist Dr Haruko Obokata, 31, had fabricated the results to intentionally mislead. The retraction was released last week, and stated: “These multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole and we are unable to say without doubt whether the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency stem cells phenomenon is real. “Ongoing studies are investigating this phenomenon afresh, but given the extensive nature of the errors currently found we consider it appropriate to retract both papers.”
Errors in history
The entire sorry affair is reminiscent of the infamous false claims from internationally-renowned cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk. He made the claim of producing embryonic stem cells using cloned human embryos – he was later found to have intentionally mislead, having completely fabricated these results.
Dr Obokata reused images from different experiments which she originally included in her doctoral dissertation, and she also plagiarised material. Her reasons for doing this are not known, although it is thought she wanted to intentionally deceive. Shunsuke Ishii, head of the Riken committee, said:
– Actions like this completely destroy data credibility.
– There is no doubt that she was fully aware of this danger. We’ve therefore concluded this was an act of research misconduct involving fabrication.”
Dr Obokata struck back, claiming she would be filing a complaint against Riken, and challenging their findings. She was said to be “filled with shock and indignation”. Obokata said: “If things stay as they are, misunderstanding could arise that the discovery of stap [stem] cells itself is forgery. That would be utterly unacceptable.”
Obokata is now said to be facing disciplinary action.
Here is a video where the breakthrough is announced.
And here is a video where a crying Haruko Obokata apologizes for her mistakes.