Doctor’s behaving badly: Japanese researcher lied about stem cell treatment

The Japanese medical community is reeling after a researcher admitted to lying about a revolutionary treatment for heart patients.

Hisashi Moriguchi claimed to have used induced pluripotent stem cells to treat heart disease – if true, it would be the first clinical use of these cells. But when questions were raised about Moriguchi’s institutional affiliations, several authorities discovered that not only did he misrepresent himself as a Harvard doctor, the transplants he claimed to have performed probably never happened at all.

On Oct. 12, the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reported in a front-page article that Moriguchi had successfully transplanted cardiac muscle cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells into six patients and was presenting a paper on his methods at a conference in New York.

Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are ordinary mature cells that have been reprogrammed to behave as young cells that can develop into several different specialized types. It is thought that iPS cells could provide an alternative to embryonic stem cells.

Recently, Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of a method for creating human iPS cells.

The conference in New York, held at Rockefeller University and sponsored by the New York Stem Cell Foundation, took down the poster on Moriguchi’s cardiac study before the meeting’s second day, after Harvard officials denied any knowledge of his research. Moriguchi claimed to have carried out his transplants at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), under the auspices of the Harvard Medical School. According to B. D. Colen, a Harvard communications officer, Moriguchi was a visiting fellow at the MGH for a little over a month in 1999, and he has not been associated with the university since that time.

Moriguchi’s other claimed affiliation, with the University of Tokyo, was also called into question. The university confirmed that Moriguchi works for them as a project researcher, but did not carry out the claimed stem cell research at any of their facilities. From 1999 to 2010, he worked at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology working on medical policy and economics. He did no experimental research there at all. It was only in March, 2010 that he began working at the Tokyo University Hospital, where he worked on cryopreservation.

Investigators from the University of Tokyo are beginning to look into two papers Moriguchi published in Scientific Reports, including one on cryopreservation. The paper claims that it was approved by the institutional review boards at the authors’ institutions. A University of Tokyo spokesperson told the journal Science that the work had not been run by the ethics committee, although it is still unclear whether or not it was submitted to other review boards. Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU), where Moriguchi received his undergraduate degree in nursing and where one of his frequent coauthors holds a position, is also looking into the matter.

Chifumi Sato, Moriguchi’s collaborator at TMDU, agreed to be listed as a coauthor on the paper about the iPS transplant. He asked questions about the Harvard review board and Moriguchi’s collaborators, which he had expected to be resolved before the paper was published. He also expected to see more detailed drafts. Sato was not told about the New York conference and found out about it from the newspaper. At least two other people have appeared as coauthors on Moriguchi’s papers either without their knowledge or without approval over the final drafts.

On Oct. 13, Moriguchi admitted that he had lied in his claims about the transplants. He said that five of them are “scheduled for the future.” However, he still maintains that he carried out one iPS transplant in June, 2011. Supposedly, this transplant was approved by the MGH but actually occurred at another, unnamed, Boston hospital. The MGH says it did not approve this transplant. “I doubt whether this is real,” Hiromitsu Nakauchi, a stem cell researcher at the University of Tokyo, said to the journal Nature.

The Japanese Cabinet Office is investigating Moriguchi’s government-funded research.