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RIKEN announces penalties related to stem cell fiasco

TOKYO—RIKEN, the network of nationally supported Japanese labs, today handed out disciplinary measures for those involved in the STAP stem cell scandal who remain under its authority.

The actions result from nearly a year's worth of investigations centered on an article and a letter published online in Nature on 29 January 2014 that described a new and extremely simple way of generating stem cells called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Nature retracted the papers last July. Even before the retraction, a RIKEN panel found lead author Haruko Obokata guilty of research misconduct for fabricated and falsified images. Investigators also concluded that several of Obokata's supervisors bore a heavy responsibility for the mess because of their lax oversight. 

Obokata resigned in December after failing to reproduce her research results. Also in December, a RIKEN investigative team concluded that STAP cells never existed and that indications of pluripotency reported in experiments likely resulted from contamination of cell lines.

According to a statement released today (in Japanese here), the following disciplinary measures were taken in accordance with RIKEN regulations:

  • Masatoshi Takeichi, the former head of RIKEN’s Center for Developmental Biology (CDB), has received an official reprimand. He will voluntarily return 10% of 3 months’ worth of salary. Takeichi is still an adviser to CDB, which has been reorganized in the wake of the scandal.

  • Hitoshi Niwa, a co-author of the problematic papers and formerly a project leader, is also receiving a written reprimand. He remains on the staff. 

  • Even though she has already resigned, RIKEN judged Obokata's actions worthy of dismissal for cause.

  • For his role in the affair, Teruhiko Wakayama, a co-author who left RIKEN for a position at the University of Yamanashi before the papers were published, should have been suspended for cause, according to RIKEN. RIKEN also revoked his ongoing appointment as an associate researcher.

Another co-author who oversaw Obokata’s work, Yoshiki Sasai, committed suicide last August.

In a written statement also released today, Takeichi said that as head of CDB he bore "a heavy responsibility" for not catching in advance such unsuitable publications. He "solemnly accepted the punishment" and said he would work to promote research integrity. 

A RIKEN representative told ScienceInsider that there are a few bits of business related to the scandal still under investigation. One is whether RIKEN should return related research funds to the government. Another is whether to withdraw patent applications on the STAP technique filed jointly with Harvard University. Obokata initiated her work on STAP cells while a postdoc in the lab of Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. RIKEN is also pursuing an action plan to prevent future lapses in research ethics throughout its system.