Just as the chapter on Hwang Woo Suk, a South Korean stem cell researcher and one of the biggest known research fraudsters, came to an end recently, another major fraud by a Japan-based stem cell researcher has taken centre-stage. Two “path-breaking” papers published on January 30 in Nature by a team led by 30-year-old Haruko Obokata of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe claimed to have made the process of reprogramming adult mice cells to pluripotent stem cells (capable of becoming any of the specialised adult tissue) very simple. Also, by being able to contribute to the formation of placental tissue, the pluripotent stem cells so produced were shown to be more versatile than even embryonic stem cells. But a torrent of questions on falsification, manipulation and duplication of images and plagiarism were raised days after the publication. Scientists were also unable to replicate the study in their labs; one of the co-authors of the papers failed in his attempts post-publication. With the papers and Ms. Obokata coming under intense scrutiny, researchers unearthed a few unethical practices in her thesis as well — about 20 pages of her thesis, completed in 2011, bear a striking similarity to information posted in the National Institutes of Health website. Also, two images used with one paper, produced through an experiment completely different from the published work, appear in her thesis. But the most damaging factor is that the two stem-cell lines produced from a particular strain of mouse have been found to come from different strains.
Unfortunately, for a fraud of this magnitude, the investigation by a six-member committee constituted by the Riken Center did not measure up to the standards one would normally come to expect of such institutions. The scope of the examination was limited — only six issues concerning image manipulation and duplication and plagiarism were scrutinised but the core issue of examining the veracity of the study was skirted. While dismissing the four problems as “innocent errors,” the committee judged the manipulation of an image and the use of an image from her doctoral thesis as deliberate attempts to falsify data. Though it has labelled her actions as “scientific misconduct,” the committee has only confirmed what is abundantly clear. Unlike Riken, the Seoul National University did brilliantly in probing Mr. Hwang’s case. With Nature yet to conclude its investigation, Ms. Obokata planning to appeal the judgment and another committee being set up to determine punishment, the last word has not been said. But Ms. Obokata has surely not read the journal’s elaborate points of information for authors on the matter of image manipulation, which was added after the Hwang episode.