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Japanese researcher withdraws ‘game changing’ findings on stem cells

By Reuters
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 6:27 EDT
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Haruko Obokata
 
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A Japanese researcher accused of fabricating scientific results originally hailed as a breakthrough in stem cell research has agreed to retract two papers, deepening doubts about her “game changing” findings.

After staunchly defending her work in a rare, months-long public feud with the prominent Riken institute she works for, Haruko Obokata “has now agreed to a retraction” of the papers, a spokesman for the semi-governmental institute told Reuters on Wednesday.

The January articles in the scientific journal Nature, of which Obokata was the lead author, detailed simple ways to reprogram mature animal cells back to an embryonic-like state, allowing them to generate many different types of tissues – and offering hope for a way of replacing damaged cells or growing new organs in humans.

But questions soon arose about the research as other scientists were unable to replicate the startling results. Riken said its investigations found Obokata had plagiarized and fabricated parts of the papers, raising doubts about the credibility of Japanese science.

Under pressure from some of her fellow authors, Obokata agreed to withdraw a letter that appeared in the journal but refused to withdraw the two articles, defending the discovery of the cells in an emotional April news conference. She has not spoken publicly since then.

But on Tuesday, the Riken spokesman said, Obokata signed a paper approving the withdrawal. He said he had no further details, including the reason for her change.

Whether Nature will withdraw the article remains unclear, as one of the co-authors, Charles Vacanti of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University, has not agreed. Typically, all authors must agree to a withdrawal.

Obokata, 30, became a sensation for her youth and stylishness in Japan, where scientific discoveries tend to be the province of older men. Media hailed her as a potential Nobel prize winner and role model but also spent hours on her fashion sense and use of a traditional Japanese apron in the laboratory.

Hailed by the global scientific community, the Nature papers initially drew acclaim for Obokata and for Riken, one of Japan’s top scientific research institutes.

The scandal over the papers set off soul-searching in the Japanese scientific community, which critics say has long been hindered by a hierarchical old-boy network biased towards older faculty and a reluctance to question authority.

Obokata’s university said it would re-examine the doctoral dissertations of several hundred students after allegations that she had plagiarized there as well, and the head of the Riken panel investigating her had to resign after admitting that he had used some of the same techniques she was criticized for in a paper that he co-authored.

Even chemistry Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka called a news conference to apologize for sloppy record-keeping after questions were raised about images in one of his papers, although he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Reuters
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