Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

STAP stem cell researcher Obokata loses another paper

with 4 comments

Nature protocols

The first author of two high-profile Nature retractions about a technique to easily create stem cells has lost another paper in Nature Protocols.

Haruko Obokata, once “a lab director’s dream,” according to The New Yorker, also had her PhD revoked from Waseda University last fall.

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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  • Shi V. Liu February 26, 2016 at 11:26 am

    This is not any surprise to me. In fact I specifically pointed out a potential problem for this particular paper in my letter to Nature on March 20, 2014 in which I wrote: “Reading Obokata’s earlier publications it seems she had a tendency to over-emphasize her “success” and over-look her failure. For example, she have described her “success” of cultivating and transplanting cell sheets even though these cell sheets were rejected at the end. If I were Obokata I would not publish several “successful” cultivation papers on fabricating cell sheets if I knew the transplantations of these cell sheets all ended with complete degeneration.”
    In addition to this I also pointed out: “Another thing that struck me is a total lack of correct understanding to some scientific methodologies she have used. For example, in a paper published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology (75:3826-33, 2009), it was repeated in many places that inoculations were made to give 0.1 to 0.5 cell per chamber, or 0.1 to 0.3 cell per chamber. Using the exact words as shown in the paper (p3832 left column), “The microbial cells were inoculated with 0.1 to 0.5 cell per chamber in this experiment”. I had done many years of microbiological research. I knew I could not grow a microbial culture from 0.1 to 0.5 cell per chamber because I simply could not inoculate a fraction of a cell.”
    Thus, I told Nature:” Apparently, Obokata has not been strictly trained and lacks a comprehensive knowledge. Thus, it is not surprise she could make some “amazing” discovery. But the problem with the publication of the STAP papers is that the papers should have been strictly peer-reviewed and rigorously edited.”
    In that letter entitled as “Getting out of the STAP’s trap: an open letter to Nature”, I urged Nature: “It is a high time for Nature to seriously think the risk of continuing a strong belief in cell DIVISION-based biology and the reward of embracing a solid discovery on cell REPRODUCTION life science. No cell can be DIVIDED to live and even “self-renew”. All cells can REPRODUCE and become older. This fundamental difference in the basic understanding of cell life may explain why CNS have kept publishing many flawed and even fraud papers while Logical Biology has no need to retract any of its publications.”
    The full text of my letter to Nature can be obtained for verification by emailing me at

    • Raymond Wan February 27, 2016 at 3:05 am

      Though not my area of research, like many others, I’ve been caught up with the hype surrounding this work thanks to mainstream media. Surely, if your field of research is related to STAP, then having unethical work being published damages the field. So, I can understand how what happened with the STAP work deeply affected some people.

      I’m in no way related to Nature (though I wouldn’t mind a paper in one of their journals!), but if I was a Nature editor and I received an “open letter” telling me how I should do my job, I’d probably delete it. Is that unethical? Perhaps. But I think it’s also human nature and applicable to any profession (not just journal editor).

      The STAP cell work has been caught, and has gone through an investigation, dismissal, and retractions. It seems to me declaring that you were right is perhaps not that great…and it might be better to focus on one’s own work, instead.

      As for Obokata not being “strictly trained” and “lacking a comprehensive knowledge”, that is probably true. But now that we have laboratories with a ratio of PI to student of 1:10, 1:20 or worse, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, if a parent had 10 children, would we expect them all to be brought up well? How about 20 children?

      Something is wrong with the system and it seems focusing too much on a single person or her papers now that the investigation is coming to a close is perhaps not time well spent. I mean, similar problems may exist in laboratories physically near us that may be within our power to fix…

      Just my opinion, of course…

      • Shaho February 29, 2016 at 8:42 pm

        100% agree. Perfect comment.

  • Conrad Seitz MD February 29, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    Those fractional “cells per chamber” could also mean that only a fraction of the chambers received single cells, while other chambers received none… of course, by the Poisson rule, some chambers would contain more than one cell, while many would contain none.
    Not clear on what really happened, but it could be interpreted two different ways. Someone that bright unlikely to make such an error, but who knows?
    “She’s buying a stairway to heaven.”

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