For such a young researcher (Obokata is a mere 30 years old, a doctoral graduate of Waseda University and postgraduate student at Harvard University under the direction of Professor Charles Vacanti), her results were certainly unique, if not exceptional. This is where problems began to emerge, and in order to explain it in depth a little background is necessary.
In March of 2011, Obokata submitted her doctoral thesis for review by Waseda Professors Tsuneda Satoshi and Takeoka Shinji, along with Dr Yamato Masayuki of Tokyo Women’s Medical University and Professor Vacanti (although Professor Vacanti later revealed that he had received a copy of the thesis, but had not been asked to review it). The thesis was accepted by all three (sic) reviewers, and Obokata obtained her doctorate.
After completing postgraduate work Obokata was forced to remain in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake and continue her research under the direction of Riken (which she joined in 2011). Obokata, whose youth, combined with her love for the fictional Moomin characters and penchant for stylish dressing set her apart from other researchers, secured her own research prep laboratory (painted pink and yellow - video) and continued her work on stem cell manipulation until January 30, when the results of this research were published in Volume 505 of Nature magazine.
Obokata’s claims in her Nature article, combined with the fact that pluripotency had been tried by numerous researchers across the globe for decades without success, did raise suspicions about the validity of Obokata’s research. These suspicions grew during February, when the Asahi Shimbun and other domestic newspapers reported that research photographs accompanying Obokata’s doctoral thesis bore an uncanny resemblance to those pasted on the American National Institute of Health website under the title of “Stem Cell Basics” (J). This led Professor Takeoka to once again review Obokata’s thesis, during the course of which it became clear that other photographs in Obokata’s thesis were identical to those on the Cosmo Bio Company website. Cosmo Bio claimed that the photographs in question were taken in 2007, long before Obokata submitted her thesis, and that the photographs had never been offered to Obokata (J).
Given these revelations, on the 17th of February Riken, under the direction of Riken’s chairman Professor Noyori Yōji, held a press conference to announce that it would conduct its own investigation into Obokata’s research on STAP cells (J). The investigation found that Figure 1i (detailing DNA sequences) in the Nature article had been manipulated, and that Figures 2d and 2e in the article had been taken from Obokata’s doctoral thesis. Professor Noyori claimed that Obokata had been careless with the data she had accumulated, that Obokata had acted alone when manipulating the data, and that she lacked a sense of responsibility (J). Riken’s research chief, Professor Takeichi Masatoshi, said that the article had been poorly constructed (literally ‘it’s not a thesis’), while the researchers in charge of overseeing Obokata’s work, Sasai Yoshiki, Wakayama Teruhiko, and Tamba Hitoshi, all of whom who worked with Obokata on the article, bore a ‘grave responsibility’ for what had occurred.
Obokata continued to claim her innocence of any malicious intent when submitting the article, saying that no-one had told her that modifying photographs was illegal and that her team had merely wanted to display the best pictures for review. She also claimed that she had discovered the irregularities in the article before it was submitted to Nature magazine and consulted with Nature on these points. Despite calls for her to rescind her findings and for the article to be removed from Nature magazine, Obokata protested that her research was valid, that STAP cells could be manufactured, and that the undue pressure being placed on her by her employer and the media was affecting her health (J).
After spending some time in hospital, on the 8th of April Obokata gave another press conference at a hotel in Osaka (J), where she admitted that her inexperience and carelessness had contributed to the situation she now found herself in. Nevertheless, she again repeated her objection to the findings of the Riken committee (a position she took when it released its report on the 1st of April), and pledged to continue to seek verifiable, conclusive evidence for the creation of STAP cells.
Media commentators (and academics such as Robert Geller of the University of Tokyo) have raised questions about the method in which Riken sought to hang Obokata out to dry. It does seem somewhat implausible for a scientific research organisation to appoint three experienced researchers to oversee Obokata’s work, only to slam both them and Obokata for poor research methods. Would it be too farfetched to suggest that Riken expedited Obokata’s research before it was completed, on the belief that it would then generate sufficient interest in Riken’s activities and the financial benefits that would invite? For so many experienced biologists to submit an article to Nature magazine, itself a widely respected academic journal, using falsified data is very difficult to accept at face value.
While Obokata may have been naïve, she has not deserved the storm of criticism flung in her direction by those who believe they have somehow been ‘duped’ by her initial press conference in January. The announcement was an institution-wide event, and not of Obokata’s own doing. There is far more to this story than has yet been brought to light.