Researcher at the center of an epic fraud remains an enigma to those who exposed him

Emotional, Burning, Unlimited Tuned Laboratory

JAPAN—The first thing that went through Alison Avenell’s head when she heard Yoshihiro Sato had died was that it might be a trick. It was March 2017, and in the previous years, Avenell, a clinical nutritionist at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, had spent thousands of hours combing through Sato’s papers, together with three colleagues in New Zealand. They had discovered that Sato, a bone researcher at a hospital in southern Japan, had fabricated data for dozens of clinical trials published in international journals. “With so much going on, so much fabrication, you just wonder if it’s convenient for the person to go and hide,” Avenell says.

Her second thought was that Sato might have killed himself. “We have no indication that he committed suicide, but it concerns us,” Avenell said when I met her at her office in late 2017. Three years earlier, Japanese stem cell scientist Yoshiki Sasai had hanged himself in the stairwell of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe after he was caught up in a stem cell scandal. “We were aware of the culture in Japan and the dishonor something like this could bring,” Avenell said.

It was one more mystery in a deeply unsettling case…