Data in a widely heralded stem-cell research paper was falsified, a Japanese government-funded laboratory said yesterday, as the lead researcher accused of the malpractice denied wrongdoing.
The research from the Riken Centre for Development Biology in Kobe, western Japan, had been hailed as a possible breakthrough for growing tissue to treat illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease using a simple laboratory procedure.
But significant discrepancies in research published in January in scientific journal Nature led a panel of scientists at Riken to conclude they stemmed from falsified data.
They said researcher Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the paper in Nature, had manipulated or falsified images of DNA fragments used in the research.
"The investigation committee has concluded that Ms Obokata is responsible for manipulation and therefore for research malpractice," said Shunsuke Ishii, the Riken scientist who led the committee charged with investigating allegations the work was falsified.
Obokata vehemently objected to the committee's findings.
"I was outraged and shocked by the committee's report," she said. "I cannot accept the finding, and I intend to make an appeal to Riken in coming days."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made greater gender equality and female advancement in the workforce a plank of his economic revival strategy for Japan. But the recognition of Obokata as a leading scientist still made waves in Japan.
The dispute over the research is also a setback for government efforts to market Japan's research and development expertise.
Riken's director, Ryoji Noyori, said after allowing for an appeal, disciplinary action would be taken including retraction of the suspect paper.
"Research misconduct occurred due to a young researcher's lack of experience and awareness of the importance of research ethics," Noyori said. He also blamed a "lack of leadership" among researchers in a position to help Obokata, and a lack of mutual verification among research groups.
He warned against any "personal attacks or violations of the human rights of the authors".
The institute said it would take months more to determine whether the stem cell findings were valid regardless of any questions about the data. Obokata says the findings are genuine.
The scientists investigating the case said three other co-authors of the papers had not falsified the data but were still "gravely responsible" for negligence in failing to verify the research. The discrepancies in the data showed up as anomalous lines in an image of DNA fragments.
Researchers in Boston and Japan conducted the experiments in using a simple procedure to turn ordinary cells from mice into stem cells by exposing cells from spleens of newborn mice to a more acidic environment than they are used to.
Cells from other tissue of newborn mice appeared to go through the same change if exposed to any of a variety of stressful situations, the researchers said.