On April 9th, the Japanese scientist at the center of a controversy over studies purporting to turn mature cells to stem cells simply by bathing them in acid or subjecting them to mechanical stress, Haruko Obokata, publicly apologized for her errors associated with the published work.
In a press conference in Osaka, Japan, with a crowd of voracious reporters flashing their cameras, Obokata blamed her scientific immaturity and lack of awareness of research protocols for the errors that were found in her two high-profile papers on the studies that were published in the journal Nature in January, which included the use of a duplicated image. With Obokata were two lawyers who are representing her.
To her credit, Obokata took full responsibility for the errors in the papers and apologized to her co-authors for the messy situation in which they presently find themselves. She also apologized to the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, where she did her work, for the embarrassing press this ordeal had brought upon it. Additionally, she sought forgiveness from the RIKEN committee whose report earlier this month found her guilty of scientific misconduct. At the time, Obokata had attacked the report.
This is Obokata’s first public statement in more than two months, and she held the press conference to apologize for the errors and to make the case that her research, despite the caveats and mistakes, was still valid. Also, Obokata wanted to establish that the inaccuracies in the papers were not deliberate. The day before the press conference, Obokata submitted a formal appeal to RIKEN for their committee to retract its misconduct findings. She insisted that the “stimulus-triggered activation pluripotency” or STAP phenomenon, as it has been dubbed, exists. RIKEN has 50 days to respond to her appeal.
In the STAP work, lead author Obokata, along with Japanese and US colleagues, described remarkable experiments in which she reprogrammed mature mouse cells to an embryonic state merely by stressing them. Unfortunately, she her two papers soon fell under suspicion and last month a RIKEN-appointed investigative committee found in a preliminary report that they contained numerous errors. A further report on 1 April by the RIKEN committee concluded that two of the errors in this paper constituted a case of scientific misconduct. Obokata aggressively responded on the same day in a written statement in which she expressed “shock and anger” at these conclusions. She also thought that the committee had unfairly come to their conclusions without giving her a chance to explain herself. On this day, however, Obokata’s seemed to sing a very different tune in which she pleaded for forgiveness and presented several apologies. However, she steadfastly maintains that her primary findings are true.
Obokata continues to insist that the two problems that the committee declared cases of scientific misconduct (the duplicated image and the swapping of a diagram of an electrophoresis gel) were honest mistakes, and that she had not been given enough time to explain her side to the committee.
After her brief introductory remarks, Obokata’s lawyer gave a 20-minute presentation to make the case that neither problem constituted misconduct. Defining fraud as fabrication, he countered that in both cases Obokata had the original data that should have been used but merely added the wrong data by mistake. For the more damning finding — an image of teratomas that had appeared in her doctoral dissertation and then again in the recent papers — the committee had found that she had changed a caption, which made it look intentional. The lawyer however traced the image back to a slide, part of a presentation that Obokata had continually updated and reused, until its origin became obscured. In one of her many apologies, Obokata said, “If I had gone back to carefully check the original data, there wouldn’t have been this problem.”
After the lawyer’s presentation, Obokata responded to journalists’ questions for more than 2 hours. Why had she only handed two laboratory notebooks over to the committee looking into her research? She said that she said she had four or five more that the committee hadn’t requested. Obokata denied that she ever agreed to retract the papers. Had she asked to retract her PhD dissertation? No, she merely sought advice on how to proceed Obokata’s dissertation is under investigation at Waseda University, where she studied for her doctorate).
Obokata also denied the possibility that the STAP cells had resulted from contamination from embryonic stem cells, saying that she had not allowed embryonic cells in the same laboratory and that she had carried out tests which precluded that possibility.
She said that she had created STAP cells more than 200 times, adding that she knows someone who has independently achieved it but refused to give the name (citing privacy). She believes that a RIKEN group trying to demonstrate STAP cells will help her. She has not, she said, been asked to participate in those efforts. She added that she would consider doing a public replication experiment but that it was not up to her whether she could.
Two hours into the questioning, her lawyer cut off journalists, citing concern for Obokata’s frail emotional state, and said she had to return to the hospital where she has been staying. She bowed, apologized, then bowed again and left with the reporter’s cameras flashing away as she retreated.
I feel genuinely sorry for this young lady. Her career in science is essentially over. It is within the realm of possibility that her mistakes were unintentional and were the result of a hurry to publish. In this case, her adviser does bear some of the blame for her mistakes. However, at this point it seems more likely that her mistakes were probably intentional. If that is the case she should have known that such a high-prolife paper describing such a novel finding would be subjected to intense scrutiny and repeated attempts to verify it. I am reminder of Moses’ admonition to the tribes that had settled on the East side of the Jordan River if they do not help the other tribes fight for their lands. In Numbers 32:22-24, Moses said, “then when the land is subdued before the Lord, you may return and be free from your obligation to the Lord and to Israel. And this land will be your possession before the Lord. But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. 24 Build cities for your women and children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”
Indeed your sin will find you out, and if Ms. Obakata intentionally attempted to deceive her colleagues, then it would appear that her sin has found her out. At the moment I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but if further evidence emerges that the whole thing is bogus, then I will retract my half-hearted support. It is entirely possible that she found something novel and interesting that happens to cells when they are stresses. However, it seems equally clear that a conversion into an embryonic stem cell-like state is probably not one of these things. I reiterate my original belief – the original STAP paper should be retracted.