STAP cell scandal update: Vacanti, Obokata (小保方 晴子), & More

stap cellsWho can forget the STAP cell scandal of last year?

Now almost a year and a half after the deeply flawed papers first were published, where do things stand?

As an international collaboration there were both American and Japanese sides to STAP.

In the US, STAP still remains eerily quiet.

In a month or so, the one-year sabbatical of STAP cell paper senior author, Professor Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is scheduled to end.

There has been no public disclosure as to whether (or if) there was or is an institutional investigation into the possible roles of Vacanti and his trainee Koji Kojima in the fiasco that ultimately led to the retraction of two Nature papers.

In contrast, in Japan there have already been many serious repercussions for the STAP cell authors including Haruko Obokata, who was forced out of RIKEN after she couldn’t reproduce STAP. See a full STAP cell timeline here.

Just recently it was announced that Obokata has been forced to repay the publication fees for the Nature papers. Not a big deal in it of itself, but still just another repercussion for her. The same article quoted an Obokata attorney that her physical condition is a concern.

Obokata Vacanti

Vacanti and Obokata

Overall there has been and continues to be this tension between the reaction to STAP in the US and in Japan.

Well beyond Obokata, many other researchers in Japan have been negatively affected by the fallout from STAP. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it a scientific disaster. In the US, there has been pretty much no apparent fallout. Who knows, it may stay that way.

In the mean time the retracted STAP papers have become in a relatively short period extremely highly cited publications (e.g. 160 citations for one on GoogleScholar). A brief look makes clear that not all those citations are referring to the papers as an example of what can go wrong either. Some are referring to the supposed science as if it was real, which is pretty sad.

We also never really did hear any meaningful discussion of STAP from Nature either. They pretty much sidestepped any responsibility. Hopefully they have brought online a more rigorous manuscript evaluation system like the one used by EMBO.

Brigham and Women’s and Harvard face another stem cell hot potato in the controversy related to the work of cardiac stem cell researcher Piero Anversa. In that case the institution(s) did investigate and Anversa has sued them over how the investigation was handled. To my knowledge that situation remains unresolved.

Could this other situation be a factor in how those two linked institutions view STAP? Again, for all we know there never was an investigation of Vacanti’s or Kojima’s potential roles in STAP.

As more time passes, I don’t think necessarily it means that the STAP issue will go away on this side of the world. Without more information on how the STAP story evolved here in the US, it seems to me that the STAP issue overall cannot have full clarity and the lessons from it are incomplete. More facts and transparency on how that project developed are needed still. Will that ever happen? I don’t know.

Haruko Obokata 小保方 晴子-like Game Character Conducts ‘Dangerous Research’

I’ve seen many crazy things over the years doing this blog.

There was the Moriguchi IPS cell fraud, the electric stem cell bra, the stem cell supermodel case, the stem cell soup No. 7 aphrodisiac, the STAP cell scandal….and the craziness goes on.

Today there’s a new one that even surprised me.

Haruko Obokata, lead STAP cell author, has now entered the online game world, although it seems not of her own choosing.

The Asahi Shimbun reports that a new character in the video game Star Galaxy, “Haruko Oppenheimer” bears a striking resemblance to Obokata. Presumably this name is a mash up of Haruko Obokata and Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project that made the first atomic bombs.

Gamers noticed the virtual Obokata. See image here for yourself.

Obokata was known for decorating her lab with cute cartoon-like characters as well (see one on her incubator).

Obokata game

In the Star Galaxy online game, Haruko Oppenheimer was conducting “dangerous research” under the theme “ultimate cell”. Not sure what that means exactly, but it sure seems like a reference to STAP cells.


Game maker Square Enix, apologized and changed the character’s name to “Jesca Fred”, but not her appearance.

Obokata is now officially immortalized in pop culture.

Perspectives on final RIKEN report on STAP cell scandal & what comes next

STAP cells FigureThe Japanese research institute RIKEN has come full circle in a way on the STAP cell scandal. Note that the STAP papers included not only authors from RIKEN, but also from Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

With its final report released today (also a powerpoint of images were released including the one showing a figure posted here of reportedly made up data published in a STAP paper), RIKEN seems to now have handled this complicated mess in a relatively rigorous, scientific manner that paves the way for moving on from it.

What would you have done in RIKEN’s shoes? It’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate.

As a research institution, what do you do if a potential major scientific scandal is cropping up under your roof? It’s unpredictable and dangerous and couldn’t have come at a worse time for RIKEN. So how do you handle it? What would you have done?

RIKEN was faced with this kind of unpleasant reality early this year. A very high moment for RIKEN with the publication of two seemingly groundbreaking Nature papers including numerous RIKEN authors quickly headed the other direction and began unraveling.

By February, only weeks after the STAP cell papers were published supposedly reporting the creation of power stem cells called “STAP cells”, there were signs that the research was plagued with profound problems including signs of potential misconduct.

At that point in February and March, what should the leaders at RIKEN do/have done? I’m sure they were asking themselves this tough question.

There have been ups and downs as to how RIKEN has handled STAP, but in the new report there are indications of a sober, objective and more thorough approach to STAP. I think this is a positive, constructive step even if the conclusions are negative and sad.

Dennis Normile has a nice summary over at Science News of the RIKEN report:

“The committee determined that 3 supposed STAP stem cell lines were actually likely to be 3 previously existing embryonic stem (ES) cell lines. “It is unlikely that there was accidental contamination by three different ES cells, and it is suspected that the contamination may have occurred artificially…”

This new RIKEN report on STAP has concluded that what were claimed to be STAP cells were almost certainly embryonic stem cells (ESCs) instead. It cannot be sure if the ESCs were intentionally and fraudulently used, but it says that is probable. If it was done on purpose RIKEN also cannot be sure who did it.

The report concludes that STAP first author Haruko Obokata, who RIKEN earlier had determined committed certain STAP-related misconduct, committed additional misconduct over certain data, but the report also lays some of the blame for STAP to lack of proper supervision by senior STAP authors Yoshiki Sasai, Teruhiko Wakayama, and Hitoshi Niwa. One remaining thing we do not know is what this report means for Wakayama or Niwa, the latter still being at RIKEN.

So what does all of this mean and where do things go from here?

While there is still some more to resolve on the Japan side of STAP, my impression is that this report along with Obokata’s resignation allows for RIKEN to really begin to move on from STAP.

Normile’s article concludes pointing towards where the STAP-related focus may turn next:

One of the papers’ co-authors has been beyond the reach of RIKEN investigators: Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Obokata initiated her work on STAP cells while a post-doc in Vacanti’s lab. Mutsuhiro Arinobu, a RIKEN executive director, said that although they have been in contact with Harvard, input from Vacanti “is not included in this investigation.”

Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital may or may not be conducting STAP investigations of their own. However, certainly at this point relatively speaking key unanswered questions remain on the Harvard side of STAP.

Do You Believe in STAP Stem Cells? One Final Poll in 2014

It’s been many months since I last asked, so for one last time in 2014, here’s a poll on your views of STAP stem cells.

What do you think? You can vote once per day. I am going to follow up with a couple different STAP-related polls this week, but this is the last one of 2014 on the actual STAP cells.

Newly Update Comprehensive STAP Cell Timeline with Key Events & Links

Here is an updated timeline for the major events (and links) for the STAP fiasco. If you think absolutely critical events are missing, let me know in the comments and I’ll consider adding them.

Jan 29Nature publishes STAP papers online
Jan 29Postpub review of papers on
Jan 30First STAP polling starts: respondents mostly positive
Feb 2Surprising interview w/Vacanti: STAP easy to make, same as spore cells
Feb 4First key Pubpeer comment on splicing in Figure 1i
Feb 6Top 5 reasons for doubts on STAP
Feb 7STAP crowdsourcing experiment starts
Feb 13First Pubpeer comment on STAP placenta issue
Feb 13JuuichiJigen first post on STAP problems
Feb 14RIKEN & Nature begin STAP investigations
Feb 27Wakayama interview
Mar 10Wakayama calls for STAP paper retraction
March 13JuuichiJigen post on Obokata Ph.D. thesis problems
March 14RIKEN alleges that Obokata committed misconduct
Mar 24Nature rejects Ken Lee’s STAP paper showing that STAP doesn’t work
Apr 1Vacanti Harvard STAP talk for this fateful day was cancelled
Apr 1RIKEN announces Obokata guilty of misconduct
Apr 9Obokata admits mistakes, but not misconduct
April 25Head of RIKEN STAP investigation committee, Shunsuke Ishi, resigns amid allegations of his own paper problems
May 8F1000 Publishes Lee Lab Paper showing STAP fails
May 27Call for Nature retraction of STAP papers
May 28Obokata OKs letter, but not article retraction
Jun 3Obokata agrees to retract STAP article too
June 12External committee (chaired by Teruo Kishi) issues report calling for zero-based restructuring of Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB), the institute with which Obokata, and co-authors Yoshiki Sasai and Hitoshi Niwa are affiliated, and where co-author Teruhiko Wakayama was formerly affiliated
Jun 16Genetics data suggest STAP cells involved mix or switch
July 2STAP Nature papers retracted
August 5Tragically, one of the scientists involved in STAP, Yoshiki Sasai, commits suicide
September 3Vacanti & Kojima reaffirm absolute confidence in STAP but issue new STAP protocol
December 19Obokata and Niwa fail in STAP final replication effort
December 20Obokata resigns from RIKEN