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  • Embattled Stem Cell Researcher Apologizes but Defends Her Work

    "STAP cells exist!" said Obokata, shown here during a January press conference, today in Osaka.

    On the defense. "STAP cells exist!" said Obokata, shown here during a January press conference, today in Osaka.

    Kyodo

    TOKYO—In her first appearance before the press since her claims of an astounding breakthrough in stem cell research started unraveling, Haruko Obokata, of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, apologized for the trouble she has caused her employer, her colleagues, and the scientific community. But she also firmly maintained that STAP cells, the new type of stem cells she claims to have developed, exist, and said she will not retract the two Nature papers reporting her finding.

    “I sincerely apologize to RIKEN, my co-authors, and to many others for the trouble I caused through my insufficient experience and carelessness," Obokata said with a deep bow at the beginning of the press conference, which was held in Osaka. But "STAP cells exist!" she defiantly declared in response to a question. She also pledged to "go anywhere" to help any interested scientist reproduce her results.

    Obokata last faced the press when she and colleagues at RIKEN and other institutions in Japan and at Harvard Medical School in Boston published a research article and a letter online in Nature on 29 January. The 30-year-old was lionized in Japan for her unexpected breakthrough, a method to create stem cells that she called "stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency," or STAP. It works by subjecting mature cells to a brief acid bath and then tweaking culture conditions. But soon there were reports of doctored images and plagiarism, and to date, no one has reported replicating the first step in creating STAP cells. One co-author has called for the papers to be retracted.

  • Pro-Life Citizens' Initiative Worries E.U. Scientists

    Credit: © Istockphoto.com/virtualphoto

    BRUSSELS—A group of European pro-life organizations is mobilizing against embryonic stem cell research in a way that the European Commission cannot ignore. One of Us, a so-called European citizens' initiative, has collected 1.7 million signatures from all 28 E.U. member states for a proposal that would block funding for research in which embryos are destroyed; under E.U. rules, the European Commission must now consider turning the proposal into legislation.

    Research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will meet the organizers of the initiative here today; on Thursday, they will defend their case during a public hearing at the European Parliament. The commission has until 28 May to spell out its response.

    The proposal is a direct attack on a delicate compromise over the use of embryonic cells in research, a topic on which the union is sharply divided. “Any roll back of this agreement would be a major step backwards for research across regenerative medicine, reproductive health and genetic disease, and delay the development of much needed treatments for a host of untreatable conditions,” said a group of 31 research organizations and universities from across Europe today in a statement. The group, led by the Wellcome Trust, urged the commission and the Parliament to oppose the initiative.

  • Bolden Talks Back to House Spending Panel

    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has been at the receiving end of tough questions from Congress numerous times over the past 5 years. But his pugnacious exchange with lawmakers at a hearing of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee today is likely to go down as one of his more memorable visits to Capitol Hill.

    Bolden was first grilled by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chair of the commerce, justice, and science appropriations subcommittee, over alleged lapses of security at NASA, which Wolf and many others believe has made the agency vulnerable to espionage by China. Bolden said NASA was improving its security.

    Then Wolf demanded to know why NASA had been slow to share information with the committee on the expected budget and schedule for programs and the road maps for achieving goals such as the development of a rocket that can take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). “As a result, we are often required to make decisions in an information vacuum,” Wolf said. At one point, he remarked, “Instead of posturing, let’s just be honest.”

    The comment got Bolden hot under the collar. “Every time I come here, my integrity is impugned,” Bolden replied. He insisted that he had never misrepresented anything to the committee. “I am offended,” he said.

  • London Mayor Seeks to Form Biomedical 'Golden Triangle'

    London’s ebullient and media-friendly mayor, Boris Johnson, today unveiled an initiative that aims to attract commercial investment to the bioscience research powerhouses of London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

    Johnson hopes that his plan—dubbed MedCity—will forge a “golden triangle” of research collaborations between the three cities, bring in venture capital financing for spinout companies, and encourage major pharmaceutical companies to establish bases in the region.

    At the heart of the plan is the £650 million ($1 billion) Francis Crick Institute, now under construction in London and led by geneticist Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society. When the institute opens in 2015, it will be the biggest biomedical research facility in Europe, employing about 1250 scientists and with an annual budget of more than $160 million.

  • Opponents Assail White House Plan to Close NOAA Lab in North Carolina

    Sunk? The White House is proposing to close a marine research laboratory located on Pivers Island near Beaufort, North Carolina.

    Sunk? The White House is proposing to close a marine research laboratory located on Pivers Island near Beaufort, North Carolina.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    A proposal by the Obama administration to close a historic marine research laboratory near Beaufort, North Carolina, is drawing pushback from the scientific community and local members of Congress. Although the administration frames it as a tough choice in a time of fiscal restraint, critics argue that the proposed closure of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab would endanger crucial marine research.

    Founded more than 100 years ago, the NOAA laboratory on Pivers Island near Beaufort conducts research into a variety of marine science subjects, including fish stocks, ecosystem function, and the health of aquatic creatures. Its work has helped scientists improve how they forecast harmful algal blooms, and it set in place the first study of invasive lionfish in the South Atlantic, those familiar with the lab say. And it is the only NOAA lab between Miami, Florida, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

    The Obama administration quietly proposed closing the lab in the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget request released last month, citing the tough fiscal environment. The lab, which employs 108 workers and contractors, has a roughly $1.6 million operating and maintenance budget (which does not include salaries).

    The closure is far from set in stone. Congress would have to approve the request as part of the spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. But that work isn’t expected to be finished until late this year, after the November elections.

  • Plan to Allow Libyan Nuclear Scientists to Study in U.S. Draws Fire in Congress

    Nuclear legacy. A U.S. government guard stands watch over gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment seized in 2003 from a ship bound for Libya.

    Nuclear legacy. A U.S. government guard stands watch over gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment seized in 2003 from a ship bound for Libya.

    U.S. Department of Energy

    Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are raising objections to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plan to lift a 1983 ban on Libyan nationals receiving pilot training or studying nuclear science in the United States. At a hearing last week, supporters of lifting the ban said the move is needed to help Libya rebuild global ties after decades of international sanctions during the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Critics, however, worried it could help train potential terrorists.

    The regulations at issue were created by President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the early 1980s, when Libya hosted terrorist training camps and sought to procure nuclear weapons. Libya was already included on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the Reagan administration wanted to make sure that Libyans were not able to come to the United States to learn to fly or repair aircraft, or study the nuclear sciences. Wanting to improve foreign relations with the United States, in 2003 Libya voluntarily ended its nuclear program, which was still in the early stages of uranium enrichment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed the country as a state sponsor of terrorism in 2006.

  • Italian Geologist Reflects on Tragedy of 2009 Earthquake

    Earthquake science. Italian geologist Gianluca Valensise heads a project examining seismic risks in central Italy.

    Earthquake science. Italian geologist Gianluca Valensise heads a project examining seismic risks in central Italy.

    Gianluca Valensise

    This weekend, it will be 5 years since a massive earthquake, centered on the town of L’Aquila, killed 309 people in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. The aftershocks of that tragedy included a controversial court case in which a judge found four scientists, two engineers, and a former government official guilty of manslaughter for having misleadingly reassured the citizens after a series of earlier tremors; the prosecution argued that residents would have otherwise followed the traditional practice of fleeing houses before a major quake hits. Each was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment, but the judgment is still under appeal.

    The earthquake on 6 April 2009 has also led to new research. Gianluca Valensise, a geologist at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), is the scientific coordinator of Progetto Abruzzo, which involved opening a research center in the “red zone” of L’Aquila—the devastated area of the city’s historical center that is largely uninhabited and restricted to traffic. Valensise recently spoke with ScienceInsider about the effort, which has been funded since 2012 by Italy’s research ministry, and the general relationship between Italy’s geoscientific community and citizens since the trial. While some progress has been made, problems remain in his view. Despite their crucial role in a hazard-prone country like Italy, and the demand for effective communication to the public, Italian scientists “have never received any formal training in the communication of science and of natural hazards,” he notes. Valensise’s remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • NIH Puts Squeeze on Chimpanzee Living Space

    Downsized. NIH says chimpanzees need less space than some experts had advised.

    Downsized. NIH says chimpanzees need less space than some experts had advised.

    Frans de Waal/Emory University

    The few chimpanzees still used for biomedical research in the United States can live in much tighter quarters than some experts prefer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided that about 23 square meters (250 square feet) per individual is adequate. That is just one-fourth the area that an advisory committee had recommended.

    The space plan affects a dwindling number of research chimpanzees. In December 2011, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report found that most research on chimpanzees is unnecessary and that NIH should limit the animals’ use. After asking an advisory committee to help it carry out IOM’s advice, NIH announced last June that it would retire to sanctuaries all but 50 of its 360 research chimpanzees and impose new requirements on any remaining NIH-funded behavioral and biomedical studies.

    The one sticking point, however, was the advisers’ recommendation that an individual chimpanzee have at least 93 square meters (1000 square feet) of primary living space. NIH said there was little evidence to support that amount of space, which could be costly, especially because the chimpanzees were supposed to live in groups of at least seven animals. So the agency decided to get input from experts on animal care and commission a literature review.

  • Former U.S. Research Fraud Chief Speaks Out on Resignation, 'Frustrations'

    David Wright

    David Wright

    Rebecca C. Henry

    Last month, David Wright, the director of the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which keeps watch on fraud in federally funded biomedical research, quit in frustration after 2 years. His resignation letter was a scathing critique of what he called the “dysfunctional” bureaucracy at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH). After it was obtained and published by ScienceInsider, it drew national attention to an office that often labors in obscurity. Wright, 68, has since returned to Michigan, where he is a professor emeritus at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He spoke with ScienceInsider earlier this week about his reasons for leaving. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q: Did something trigger your decision in February?

    D.W.: It was the accumulation of frustrations with the bureaucracy and trying to operate a regulatory office which requires precision, transparency, procedural rigor in an organization that values none of those things.

    While the ORI director has a lot of creative capacity and leadership capacity when he or she faces outward to the research community helping institutions better handle allegations or promote the responsible conduct of research, for example, inside the director is essentially treated like a flunky in a kind of backwater bureaucracy.

  • Scientist Quits Effort to Live-Blog STAP Cell Replication

    A scientist who has been trying to reproduce STAP cells—a new type of stem cells—and has been regularly blogging about his progress has given up. "I don’t think STAP cells exist and it will be a waste of manpower and research funding to carry on with this experiment any further," wrote Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee, an embryologist and stem cell researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on his ResearchGate page yesterday. Though he is giving up, he hopes others will continue to investigate whether the new approach—which has been dogged by controversy and claims of research misconduct—can really lead to stem cells.

    Two papers that appeared online in Nature on 29 January described how subjecting cells from newborn mice to a mildly acidic solution and then tweaking culture conditions turned them into pluripotent stem cells that can differentiate into all of a body's cell types. The authors—Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and colleagues at other institutions in Japan and at Harvard Medical School in Boston—dubbed the process stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP.

    Whether STAP cells exist is yet to be proven. But the controversy surrounding them shows how scientists are embracing the latest social media tools. Immediately after the Nature papers appeared, stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler raised questions about STAP cells on his blog. He later started weekly polls, asking how many scientists believed in the existence of STAP cells. He also ran a tally of groups trying to reproduce the results. (So far, none have.) The PubPeer website, for open postpublication review of published papers, set up two webpages—one for each paper. Contributors soon started raising questions about images and text in the Obokata papers.

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