Japanese RNA Scientist's Results Can't be Duplicated?

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright February 1, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

"I didn't do anything wrong," Kawasaki says, adding that he didn't know the importance of keeping notebooks until recently.

Give me a break. From high school through work at NIH we were all required to keep impeccable lab notes -- always required to be written in permanent ink so that they couldn't be changed or erased. Indeed, many scientific "breakthroughs" in the history of science have been made precisely because the researchers abided by their raw data, even though at the time it might not have made sense. Further, one of the most basic requirements of the "scientific method" is that the research data of any one scientist or group of scientists can be duplicated in other labs around the world. The reasons should be obvious.

And contrary to the article, this research is indeed "central to the field", as among other things it is a step toward scientists being able to direct the differentiation of totipotent human embryonic stem cells into various pluripotent and multipotent stem cells and tissues by means of manipulation of the RNA in the cell -- which in turn manipulates the genes.

What kind of academic course work and practical lab training did this scientist have before he was allowed access to research laboratories and professional scientific journals - or did he have any? For example, unfortunately, most physicians are usually not given any training in basic bench research techniques; yet lately M.D.'s have gained entry into what is in fact a totally different field - basic bench research. Would it then be acceptable for research physicists or organic chemists to practice the art of medicine on unsuspecting patients? It would also seem that previous professional international guidelines (e.g., the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, etc.) that require of a researcher that he/she at least be academically credentialed and experienced in the field being researched on has gone by the wayside. Such international guidelines also state that the first ethical requirement of any research is that the "science" being used is as accurate as possible. This bears repeating: the first ETHICAL requirement of research is that the science used is as accurate as possible! Is research now too afraid to be so "judgmental"?! And if someone isn't judgmental, what are the multiple and far-reaching consequences?

Finally, even if this researcher had kept scrupulous lab notes; even if this researcher had the proper academic credentials and experience; even if this researcher had used the most accurate "science" available at the time - there is still the growing concern even within the scientific establishment itself about the personal character development of the researcher, so that tempting violations of the scientific method and of international guidelines would be rejected by the scientist on his/her own.

There is a growing need for researchers to understand competency, accuracy AND honesty. Whatever happened to the "ethical" or "virtuous" scientist? It still matters. The falsifications of data at the bench lead to dangerous drug medications, falsification of the scientific and medical literatures for generations, misinformation used by scientific colleagues, wasting of precious grants and monies, legal loopholes in legislation and regulations, and ultimately for the total loss of confidence in the credibility of these various related fields in the eyes of the general public.

Where is the accountability?

[See Irving, "The Tragic Irony: South Korean Bioethics Committee Finds Hwang and IRBs Violated the Declaration of Helsinki" (February 2, 2006), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_117tragicirony.html; "How can either 'nuclear transfer' or 'twinning' produce Hwang's 'patient-specific stem cells'?", (December 17, 2005), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_112retraction.html; "When is 'not-self' really 'self'? International Research Ethics Standards Require Hwang's Team to Retest Its Stem Cells" (December 6, 2005, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_111reteststemcells.html; "Analysis of Legislative and Regulatory Chaos in the U.S.: Asexual Human Reproduction and Genetic Engineering" (Oct. 20, 2004), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_81chaosasexgen1.html; "The Impact of 'Scientific Misinformation' on Other Fields: Philosophy, Theology, Biomedical Ethics, Public Policy", Accountability in Research, April 1993, 2(4):243-272, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_124misinformation1.html; "Which ethics for science and public policy?", Accountability in Research 1993, 3(2-3):77-99, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_42whichethics1.html].

Nature News
27 January 2006; | doi:10.1038/news060123-14
Scientist faces irreproducible results
by Ichiko Fuyuno

RNA researcher defends experiments others have found impossible to repeat.

After the spectacular case of fraud involving stem-cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang, Asia has been hit by another, more low-key scandal.

The head of an investigating committee at the University of Tokyo announced on 27 January that at least one of the experiments performed by a Japanese RNA researcher, whose credibility stands in doubt, has failed a first test to reproduce the results.

In April last year, the RNA Society of Japan asked the University of Tokyo to examine 12 papers written by Kazunari Taira and his team between 1998 and 2004. This was in response to a number of complaints from international researchers that they could not reproduce the experimental results.

The main focus of Taira's work is RNA interference technology, in which small pieces of RNA, either naturally present or introduced into cells, regulate expression of genes. The work, which has been questioned for some time, addresses smaller aspects of RNA research and is not considered central to the field.

The university has set up an investigating committee, which includes outside experts. They first asked Taira to submit raw data, but he could not do so. His assistant and first author of most of the papers, Hiroaki Kawasaki, admitted that he had not kept his notebooks. It also seems that some data stored in a computer had been deleted (see 'Lack of lab notes casts doubt on RNA researcher's results').

So the committee asked Taira and his team to reproduce experiments described in 4 of the 12 papers, chosen because they looked relatively easy to perform. These included two Nature papers1,2, the first of which had already been retracted, and the second corrected.

Mixed results

Now the results are in from the first of these tests. On 13 January, Kawasaki reported that he could repeat the results outlined in their 2003 paper published in Nucleic Acids Research3. But an independent company also attempting it could not.

The investigating committee has decided not to accept Kawasaki's new results, in part, they say, because the team did not use the same materials as outlined in the original paper. They also note that while Kawasaki's notebooks indicate that he used Rosetta-gami bacteria in the new experiment, it seems that he used Rosetta-gami DC3 instead; a potentially worrying discrepancy.

Taira says that Kawasaki is willing to do the test again in front of witnesses.

Officials from the university did not discuss whether scientific fraud or fabrication were involved. Kimihiko Hirao, head of the School of Engineering and spokesperson for the committee, said at a press conference on 27 January "there are many things that look doubtful".

"I didn't do anything wrong," Kawasaki says, adding that he didn't know the importance of keeping notebooks until recently.

Last week, various news outlets reported that Taira said that an assistant may have fabricated some data.

Try, try again

Taira's team is working on re-doing a second of the four papers. They have not yet tackled the third and fourth.

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