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Death of Yoshiki Sasai

Yoshiki Sasai, supervisor of 30-year-old scientist Haruko Obokata of Riken Institute, answers questions during a press conference in Tokyo on April 16, 2014.

Suicide is a deep-rooted reaction to disgrace in many cultures, and at least in pop-culture stereotypes Japanese culture is an outlier in this regard.

I cannot judge the over-all validity of those stereotypes, but they do naturally come to mind with news of the death of Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Center for Development Biology, part of the Riken center, in Japan.

Sasai supervised recent research into stem cells that seemed for a brief heady time to constitute a great breakthrough. A younger scientist working under him got the lead-author credit on the key paper, but there was plenty of limelight to go around while it lasted.

The apparent breakthrough, in January of this year, was the discovery of stimuli, external stressors, that could trigger the return of specialized, a/k/a differentiated cells back to the "pluripotency" of the stem cell state. Their process involved bathing blood cells in acid at a specified temperature -- 37 C. My quick math tells me that's very close to 98.6 F, the figure traditionally seen as the "normal" human body temperature.

This seemed simple enough to do, which made the finding that much more startling -- but it made the fame fleeting, because other labs sought and failed to replicate the results of the supposedly simple procedure.

A little over a month ago, the lead author, Haruko Obokato, bowed to increasing pressure to retract the claims of the paper

Nobody that I know of has leveled a charge of conscious fraud regarding these claims. An editorial in NATURE, to which I've linked you in the above paragraph, refers rather to "sloppiness" in the "handling of data, in their analysis, or in the inadequate keeping of laboratory notes."

Now Sasai is gone. Let us spare a moment of silence for him, and hope the important work he and so many others around the world were and are doing on developmental biology is continued with great consequences.


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