Discredited Japanese Stem Cell Researcher Sticks to His Claim

The day after his disciplinary dismissal from University of Tokyo for "damaging the university's honor or credibility," Hisashi Moriguchi maintained in an interview with ScienceInsider that he really did participate in a groundbreaking experiment to treat a heart disease patient with cardiac muscle cells derived from the patient's own induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. He admitted making mistakes, and that there is doubt about his claims. But for that one case, "I'm very confident," he said.

During a 2-hour-plus interview at a hotel in Tokyo on 20 October, Moriguchi was polite, gracious, and relaxed, despite being unhappy about the way he was dismissed by Todai, as the University of Tokyo is known. He noted that he had promised to cooperate with investigations now getting under way to determine what happened and the possible misuse of research funds. "I had said that regardless of the committee judgments, I would resign to take responsibility for causing trouble," he said. But, "Even before these committees reached any conclusions, the University of Tokyo suddenly decided on a disciplinary dismissal," he added. He said he wanted to keep his position long enough to produce evidence of interest to investigators from his computer and files at his Todai hospital laboratory. But with access cut off, "it will be very difficult to cooperate," although he said he intends to do the best he can.

Moriguchi is also disappointed his co-authors are deserting him. Some have asked editors to remove their names from papers; others are claiming they didn't see final versions of some papers their names are on. Moriguchi insisted that for all of the several papers on which he was the corresponding author, he always showed them to his co-authors. He emphasized that he was primarily responsible for the reported work but turned to colleagues for discussion and advice. Those not wishing to be listed as co-authors should have said so, he said. He only heard about co-authors asking for their names to be removed from contributions to Protocol Exchange by reading about it in the Japanese press. "I was shocked," he said. "At least they should have contacted the corresponding author," he said.

He admitted making mistakes. An identical statement on two papers published online this year in Scientific Reports reads: "The study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of our institutions." On one of the papers Harvard Medical School and the University of Tokyo are listed in parentheses. The other paper lists those two institutions plus the Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU). Moriguchi said he did not get review board approval. He explained that he thought it was a subtle distinction as to whether review board approval was needed for the research described. Including the statement on the papers "was a procedural miss," he said. He added that he has already informed Scientific Reports he would like to retract the papers.

Moriguchi also wants to correct misunderstandings about his affiliations. Contrary to statements from Harvard University that he was a visiting scientist for just 1 month in late 1999, Moriguchi insists he spent a full year there as a visiting research fellow, from November 1999 to November 2000 and then established an ongoing affiliation in 2006. He showed a February 2006 letter signed by Raymond Chung, director of hepatology on letterhead the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School logos and addresses, informing Moriguchi that "during your visit here you will have the appointment of Visiting Lecturer, Harvard Medical School, and Consultant in Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, effective upon your arrival here."

Despite the "during your visit" phrase, Moriguchi insisted it was an ongoing position. (An MGH spokesperson, Susan McGreevey, told Science it was a temporary appointment intended to facilitate Moriguchi's participation in a 2006 event. When Moriguchi did not show up, the appointment was immediately rescinded and technically lasted for only a day.) Moriguchi also presented a July 2011 patent application for "Methods and Compositions for Reprogramming Cells," that names himself and Chung as the inventors and designates the assignee as "The General Hospital Corporation, Boston, MA," the MGH legal entity. (McGreevey says the application is being withdrawn.) "If I had no connection (to MGH and Harvard) they wouldn't have filed a patent application," he said.

He also explained that he acquired the knowhow to carry out sophisticated experiments in cell biology by studying and working on his own. With an undergraduate degree in nursing and a master's in health promotion, completed in 1995, from TMDU, Moriguchi first worked at a health policy think tank in Tokyo and then in August 1999 joined the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology where he worked on policy issues related to drug evaluation and medical economics. He said that in 2006 he realized he wanted to take on the challenge of developing innovative drugs himself. He said he rented a room near campus, set up a lab, and taught himself experimental techniques. Later he maintained a similar arrangement in a rented facility in the Boston area where he worked by himself on iPS cells, developing a method of creating iPS cells from somatic cells using chemicals. He financed this research out of his own pocket, he said. At one point he said he cultured pig heart cells derived from iPS cells and then a collaborator he declined to identify transplanted them into the pig. After the pig experiment worked well, he used his Boston area facility to culture the 30 million cardiac muscle cells that he says were injected into a heart disease patient in mid-2011. He believes the patient is doing well. But he said his surgeon collaborator, whom he declined to name, has cut off contact for unknown reasons. "Perhaps because of the publicity," Moriguchi said.

Moriguchi agreed that his strange tale "is difficult to believe, as it stands. That's why I want to gather and present the evidence."