STAP cell pioneer nearly gave up on her research

January 30, 2014


Her colleagues describe her as a tenacious researcher with a never-give-up attitude, but Haruko Obokata, a new star in the science world, says she was not always that way.

“There were many days when I wanted to give up on my research and cried all night long,” Obokata, 30, said at a Jan. 28 news conference at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. “But I encouraged myself to hold on just for one more day, and then I realized that five years had passed.”

Obokata led a research unit that discovered a new method--called “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP)--to create pluripotent stem cells in mice.

The discovery is being hailed as a major breakthrough in regenerative medicine because STAP cell creation is simpler than the process for induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and gene damage in STAP cells is minimal compared with embryonic stem cells.

The feat came just three years after Obokata earned her Ph.D.

Born in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, Obokata was accepted by the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo in 2002. The selection process placed emphasis on the personality and aspirations of the applicant.

In her interview with university officials, Obokata said she wanted to incorporate a chemistry-based approach into the field of regenerative medicine.

She said she enjoyed campus life and played lacrosse in her spare time.

But Obokata became more focused on research when she was studying marine micro-organisms at a laboratory in the university’s Department of Applied Chemistry. Her adviser asked her what she really wanted to do, and she remembered her initial dream when she entered the school.

She decided to get into the field of regenerative medicine at graduate school.

Masayuki Yamato, a professor of tissue engineering at Tokyo Women’s Medical University, was Obokata’s adviser at the school.

He described Obokata as competitive and persistent, saying the graduate student learned the cell cultivation technique from scratch and worked on experiments around the clock.

Obokata later studied at Harvard University in a half-year program. But her adviser, Charles Vacanti, a professor of anesthesiology, was so impressed with her research that he asked her to stay longer than planned.

While at Harvard, Obokata came up with ideas that would lead to the discovery of STAP.

One key to the success of her research was creating a special strain of mouse, so she talked with Teruhiko Wakayama, then a Riken Center researcher known as one of the world’s best in creating such specimens.

With the assistance of Wakayama, now a professor of developmental engineering at the University of Yamanashi, Obokata yielded results after more than half a year of work.

“I was lucky to have met the scientists who helped me out when I was about to give up,” she said.

Yoshiki Sasai, a stem-cell biologist at the Riken Center, also described Obokata as original and tenacious.

“Since she has chemistry background, she does not have a preconception of biology,” Sasai said. “She held her own view backed by data. She had the ability to get closer to the truth and to follow through to the end.”

Last year, Obokata became unit leader of the Riken Center’s research group. She changed the color of her laboratory’s wall to pink and yellow and brought in her favorite sofa from her days in the United States.

She also decorated the lab with “Moomin” cartoon items and stickers that she loved to collect.

During experiments, Obokata wears a sleeved Japanese cooking garment called “kappogi” that her grandmother gave her, instead of a typical white laboratory coat.

“(In my spare time,) I spend normal days just like others, such as looking after my pet turtle and going out shopping,” Obokata said.

She said she spends more than 12 hours a day throughout the week at her laboratory, where she keeps her turtle.

“I think about my research all day long, including when I am taking a bath and when I am on a date with my boyfriend,” Obokata said.

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Haruko Obokata, a unit leader of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe’s Chuo Ward, wears a 'kappogi' garment during experiments. (Takuya Isayama)

Haruko Obokata, a unit leader of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe’s Chuo Ward, wears a 'kappogi' garment during experiments. (Takuya Isayama)

  • Haruko Obokata, a unit leader of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe’s Chuo Ward, wears a 'kappogi' garment during experiments. (Takuya Isayama)

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