The first author of two high-profile Nature retractions about a technique to easily create stem cells has lost another paper in Nature Protocols.
After learning of concerns that two figures are “very similar” and “some of the error bars look unevenly positioned,” the rest of the authors were unable to locate the raw data, according to the note. The journal could not reach Obokata for comment before publishing the retraction.
“Reproducible subcutaneous transplantation of cell sheets into recipient mice” has been cited 21 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science. It was published in June 2011, soon after Obokata earned her PhD.
Here’s the note:
Masayuki Yamato, Satoshi Tsuneda and Teruo Okano would like to retract this protocol after concerns were raised by the community about some of the figures. Specifically, concerns were raised that the fourth graph in Figure 5a and the first graph in Figure 5b look very similar, and some of the error bars look unevenly positioned. Masayuki Yamato, Satoshi Tsuneda and Teruo Okano have been unable to locate some of the raw data to verify these figures and are no longer confident in the paper’s results. Given that these results are key to demonstrating the reliability and reproducibility of the protocol, these authors wish to retract the protocol, and they sincerely apologize for the adverse consequences that may have resulted from its publication. Haruko Obokata could not be reached by the journal for comment on the retraction.
Obokata’s Nature papers — arguably the two biggest retractions of 2014 — were pulled following months of controversy due to “several critical errors,” some of which a RIKEN investigation categorized as misconduct. It prompted Nature to publish an editorial on the case, noting it was taking a second look at its review process. The entire episode was marred by tragedy when one of the co-authors on the two retracted papers committed suicide.
Obokata shared corresponding author responsibilities on one of the papers with stem cell pioneer Charles Vacanti, who took a year-long sabbatical from Harvard following the retractions.
Obokata lost her thesis after it was discovered it contained significant amounts of plagiarized text from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The February 29 issue of The New Yorker describes the failure of STAP, which stands for “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” — a method for creating stem cells by putting normal cells under stress. It includes a description of Obokata’s role in the Nature publications:
The revolutionary behind the work was Haruko Obokata, a thirty-year-old postdoctoral researcher who was the first author on both papers. With the publications, Obokata—a stylish, self-possessed beauty, uncommonly adept at maneuvering in the mostly male world of Japanese science—was hailed as a maverick. “A brilliant new star has emerged in the science world,” an editorial in the Asahi Shimbun read. “This is a major discovery that could rewrite science textbooks.” As an outsider—young, female, and not an established stem-cell biologist—Obokata, the newspapers argued, was unhindered by conventional notions of what cells can and cannot do. Her fresh perspective, coupled with dogged work and natural genius, had conspired to create one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the twenty-first century.
Journalist Dana Goodyear describes trying to reach Obokata in The New Yorker piece:
Thoroughly discredited, Obokata went into hiding for more than a year. At the end of January, though, after I had tried for months to reach her, she sent me a letter, her first engagement with a member of the media since the scandal. Soon afterward, she published a memoir in Japan, strenuously arguing that she had been misunderstood. “I feel a strong sense of responsibility for the STAP papers,” she wrote to me. “However, I want you to know I never wrote those papers to deceive anyone.” She insisted that STAP was real.
Hat tip: Rolf Degen
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