It's been the toast of the scientific town, turning its head researcher into a minor celebrity in Japan, but a recent stem cell study from the Riken Institute has now been discredited.
The study posited the idea of turning mature specialized cells into stem cells by essentially reprogramming them, bathing the cells in acid and applying stress to have them devolve to their earlier form. It's hoped that stem cells can be used to treat Alzheimer's, cancer, and repair organs affected by injury or disease. Touted as a groundbreaking, game-changing event in stem cell research, the paper was then called into question by one of its authors, who found he could no longer reconcile the published findings with the actual results - saying that it was impossible to replicate the process. Teruhiko Wakayama was the first to express doubt around the study, which was published in the prestigious journal Nature.
"I apologize that the papers which Riken researchers recently announced in Nature caused an incident that could hurt the credibility of the scientific community," said Ryoji Noyori, head of the Riken institute and joint Nobel prize winner for chemistry. "This immature researcher handled and collected enormous amounts of research data, and handled it with sloppiness ... This must never happen." Noyori's comments were directed at lead researcher Haruko Obokata, the 30-year-old scientist who fast became a household name in Japan.
The Riken institute cannot retract the study on its own, as the process needs to be agreed to by all of the paper's authors. "I sincerely apologize for the confusion, and humbly accept the various suggestions made about the flaws in our paper," said Dr. Obokata in a statement. "I am currently contacting other co-authors on the possibility of retracting the papers."
Wakayama first challenged images and data included in the report, which Obokata maintains hadn't been cited as the report in question was a draft version. "The doctoral dissertation that is currently making the rounds in the media is not the version that has passed (the university's) screening, but a rough draft," she said. Co-author Charles Vacanti of the Harvard Medical School has defended Obokata's position. "It would be very sad to have such an important paper retracted as a result of peer pressure, when indeed the data and conclusions are honest and valid," he said. Nevertheless, the development has come as an embarrassment to Riken, who have urged Obokata and her team to retract the study.