August 8, 2014

Yoshiki Sasai: A tribute to an outstanding scientist - The Guardian

The scientific community was shocked to hear of the death earlier this week of stem cell researcher Yoshiki Sasai, who apparently committed suicide in the wake of a high profile case of scientific fraud at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, where he had worked.
Two papers from the RIKEN CDB, co-authored by Sasai and published in the journal Nature in late January, described a simple method for converting mature cells into embryonic stem cells, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP).
It seemed to good to be true – and it was. The findings were challenged and other labs tried but failed to replicate the method. Lead researcher Haruko Obokata was found guilty of scientific misconduct and in July both of the papers were retracted. Sasai himself was cleared of any involvement in the misconduct, but Obokata did the work under his supervision, and so he was criticised for oversights while the papers were being written up.
I had been working on a feature article about Sasai’s own work for Mosaic, and travelled to Japan earlier this year to visit his lab, as part of my reporting for the article. By coincidence, I arrived the day the STAP method hit the news - the Daily Telegraph had accidentally published their story about it too early - and so found myself competing with several film crews for his attention.
As a result, my visit to the lab was cut short, and I spent far less time there than had been planned, but nevertheless I managed to interview Sasai and two of his colleagues and take a look around.
The story was originally scheduled for publication on 26th August, and my editors at the Wellcome Trust have decided to go ahead and publish it on the scheduled date. They felt that it should mention of these tragic events, without letting them overshadow the real focus of the story, and so, apart from several small changes to the main story, and the addition of a brief epilogue, it is unchanged.
I spent very little time with Sasai but he struck me as a very proud man, and the remarkable work being done in his lab gave him every reason to be, so I do not doubt reports that he had felt “deeply ashamed” about the STAP cell papers and the disrepute they had brought to RIKEN, in the weeks leading up to his death. During this time, an independent committee had recommended that the CDB be dismantled, and Sasai’s mental and physical health had by then suffered considerably, so I feel doubly honoured to have visited him there when I did.
Sadly, many of the news stories about his death have focused on the unfortunate circumstances that mired the last few months of his life. We would like to send our deepest condolences to Sasai’s family and friends and hope that that the Mosaic story will serve as a sensitive and timely tribute to the pioneering work of an outstanding scientist.
This is an unedited version of an article I wrote for the Mosaic blog.


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