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RIKEN Investigator Now Under Investigation

In a bizarre twist to an already very convoluted story, the chair of an investigating committee that found RIKEN stem cell scientist Haruko Obokata guilty of research misconduct is himself now under investigation for alleged research misconduct. He has submitted a correction for problematic images appearing in one of his 2007 papers to the journal involved. He also resigned from the investigating committee.

"Some errors occurred" in arranging images appearing in a paper published online on 13 August 2007 in Oncogene, Shunsuke Ishii, a molecular geneticist at the RIKEN Tsukuba Institute, writes in a correction posted on his lab's website. The images, appearing in "ATF-2 controls transcription of Maspin and GADD45α genes independently from p53 to suppress mammary tumors," by T. Maekawa et al., show electrophoresis gel photos that result from RT-PCR analyses. RT-PCR is a method of determining gene expression. Ishii explained that he examined the images after other researchers raised questions about them in e-mails he received and online. "I deeply apologize to everyone for the suspicions that have arisen and for the various troubles these have caused," Ishii writes in Japanese in his statement. Ishii posted additional data for a second paper that is also under fire but explained that he doesn’t think there are any problems.

Ironically, Ishii's committee concluded that Obokata's arrangement of PCR image data constituted an "act of research misconduct corresponding to falsification," in its final report on 1 April. RIKEN set up the committee to investigate a research article and a letter authored by Obokata, of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, and colleagues at institutions in Japan and at Harvard Medical School in Boston that reported finding a new, simple way of creating stem cells, called STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency). The committee concluded that among a number of problems that affect the credibility of the research were two instances of research misconduct. So far, no other groups have been able to reproduce the STAP results. A separate RIKEN team is now trying to replicate every step of the experiments.

Obokata acknowledged making mistakes but claims they were not intended to mislead and that they do not affect the STAP discovery. She is appealing the committee's misconduct finding.

RIKEN today issued a statement announcing that Ishii resigned from the committee investigating Obokata and will be replaced as chair by one of the current members, Jun Watanabe, a lawyer. The statement also reports that in response to allegations received by RIKEN related to Ishii's research, "an investigation has been launched by the Auditing and Compliance Office in accordance with RIKEN’s Regulations on the Prevention of Research Misconduct."

In a report from Japan's Kyodo news agency, Obokata's lawyer is quoted as urging Ishii to remain on the committee and "reinvestigate her case based on his own views." It also quotes Teruo Kishi, a materials scientist and former president of the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba who heads a panel advising RIKEN on misconduct reform, as saying that finding problems with Ishii's papers "would be a big problem for the authority of the investigative committee."