June 4, 2014 / 10:11 AM / in 5 years

Japan researcher agrees to withdraw disputed stem cell paper

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese researcher accused of fabricating scientific results originally hailed as a breakthrough in stem cell research has agreed to retract two papers, deepening doubts about her “game- changing” findings.

After staunchly defending her work in a rare, monthslong public feud with the prominent Riken institute where she works, Haruko Obokata “has now agreed to a retraction” of both papers, a spokesman for the semi-governmental institute told Reuters on Wednesday.

The January articles in the London-based scientific journal Nature, of which Obokata was the lead author, detailed simple ways to reprogram mature animal cells back to an embryonic-like state, allowing them to generate many different types of cells - and offering hope for a way of replacing damaged cells or growing new organs in humans.

But questions soon arose about the research, as other scientists were unable to replicate the startling claims. Riken said its investigations found Obokata had plagiarized and fabricated parts of the papers, raising doubts about the credibility of Japanese science.

Under pressure from some of her co-authors, Obokata at first agreed to withdraw the shorter paper, which Nature calls a “letter,” but not the longer one, called an article. She has not spoken publicly about the research since defending the papers in an emotional April news conference.

But on Tuesday, the Riken spokesman said, Obokata signed a paper approving the withdrawal. He said he had no further details, including the reason for her change.

Whether Nature will withdraw the article remains unclear, as one of the co-authors, Dr. Charles Vacanti of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University, has not agreed. Typically, all authors must agree to a withdrawal.

The “letter” had 11 authors, including Obokata, while the article had eight in all.

In a statement to Reuters, a Nature spokeswoman said the journal “does not comment on corrections or retractions that may or may not be under consideration,” and that in general “retractions and corrections are not instantaneous, as they require consideration of the retraction or correction text from all authors.”

Nature is conducting its own evaluation of the Obokata papers, she added, “and we hope that we are close to reaching a conclusion and taking action.”

Obokata, 30, became a sensation for her youth and stylishness in Japan, where science tends to be the province of older men. Media outlets hailed her as a potential Nobel Prize winner and role model but also spent hours on her fashion sense and use of a traditional Japanese apron in the laboratory.

Hailed by the global scientific community, the Nature papers initially drew acclaim for Obokata and for Riken, one of Japan’s top research institutes.

The scandal over the papers set off soul searching in the Japanese scientific community, which critics say has long been hindered by a hierarchical old-boy network biased toward older faculty and a reluctance to question authority.

Even chemistry Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka called a news conference to apologize for sloppy record keeping after questions were raised about images in one of his papers, although he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis

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