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Teruo Kishi, chair of a RIKEN reform committee, listening to questions at a press conference on 12 June.

Teruo Kishi, chair of a RIKEN reform committee, listening to questions at a press conference on 12 June.

D. Normile/Science

Japanese stem cell debacle could bring down center

TOKYO—Shutting down the research center at the heart of an unfolding scientific scandal may be necessary to prevent a recurrence of research misconduct, according to a report released at a press conference here today. A committee reviewing conduct at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, found lax oversight and a failure on the part of senior authors of two papers in Nature outlining a surprisingly simple way of reprogramming mature cells into stem cells. The committee surmised that a drive to produce groundbreaking results led to publishing results prematurely.

RIKEN, which oversees a network of nationally funded research institutes from its headquarters in Wako near Tokyo, set up the reform committee in April after an investigative committee found that the two stem cell papers, from a team based primarily at CDB, were riddled with image and data manipulation and plagiarism. The investigative committee later concluded that two problems with the papers constituted research misconduct. So far, no one has reported being able to replicate the reprogramming method—called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP—which involves exposing cells to various kinds of stress.

The reform committee, chaired by Teruo Kishi, a materials scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, noted that the investigating committee laid primary responsibility for the papers’ shortcomings on lead author Haruko Obokata of CDB. But the reform committee’s report also blames Yoshiki Sasai, a senior co-author and deputy CDB director, and Teruhiko Wakayama, a former CDB researcher now at the University of Yamanashi, Kofu, for accepting Obokata's primary data without scrutiny or confirmation. A lack of proper oversight, the reform panel found, extends up the chain of command through CDB Director Masatoshi Takeichi to officials at RIKEN headquarters. The committee called for anyone found to bear responsibility, including Takeichi, to face "severe disciplinary measures."

During the press conference, Kishi noted that decisions on disciplinary measures should wait until ongoing investigations are finished. A third RIKEN-appointed committee is charged with determining what punitive measures should be imposed on Obokata and others. 

But the rot may extend to CDB itself. "It seems that RIKEN CDB had a strong desire to produce major breakthrough results that would surpass iPS cell research," the report concludes, referring to another type of pluripotent stem cell. "One of our conclusions is that the CDB organization is part of the problem," Kishi said. His committee recommends a complete overhaul of CDB, including perhaps restructuring it into a new institute. "This has to be more than just changing the nameplate," he said. 

Last week, RIKEN confirmed that Obokata and the other RIKEN co-authors have agreed to retract both papers. Kishi was also critical of the fact that after months of internal investigations, RIKEN had not yet been able to tell the world "whether STAP cells exist or not."

At a separate press conference later this evening, Takeichi said, "I will seriously think about what should be done, but I would like to take time to consider the recommendations."