Called revolutionary and “too good to be true,” a simple way to turn ordinary cells into stem cells has everyone excited – and some cautious. Note: see Update.
How can you turn an ordinary adult cell into a stem cell? Stress it, say Japanese researchers Sasai and Obokata, the new dynamite duo of stem cell creation. Their lab found that by giving cells a mild acid bath, a gentle squeeze or an exposure to a bacterium, the cells revert to pluripotent state – even more so than the induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) created by Yamanaka in 2006 that won him a Nobel Prize (9/14/13). The new method, that worked with mouse cells and is now being tested on human cells, promises to be quicker and easier than other methods, and might bring promises of regenerative medicine closer. The researchers are calling their method STAP for “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.” For details, see the BBC News, Live Science and two stories on Nature News. The original paper is published in Nature Jan 30. The BBC News added an article containing a video profile of Dr. Haruko Obokata at work in her lab.
Since the cells can be made from adult cells, they appear to be ethically clean. But if the cells turn out to be not just pluripotent but “totipotent” (able to become any cell), what happens if labs can turn them into an embryonic state? Will it reignite the cloning wars? New Scientist worries that ethical concerns are lurking behind the good news:
Regardless of whether the technique can or cannot be used for cloning, its apparent simplicity makes it likely that mavericks will again emerge with publicity-seeking plans to clone a human – or even with a baby that is claimed to be a clone.
Such antics would poison the promise of this advance before it even begins. This is an area where passions run high, and consensus will be hard to find. So the time is ripe for renewed discussion of the uses of stem cell technologies. We should make a clear-eyed start on it now.
Most stem cell articles mention that work with embryonic stem cells (ESC) is “ethically charged.” Despite the progress with ethically-neutral iPSC technology that would seem to make ESC work superfluous, work on ESCs has continued. Just this week, Science Daily reported a new method that “allows for large-scale generation of human embryonic stem cells of high clinical quality,” supposedly without destroying any human embryos. The cells, though, are extracted from 8-cell blastulas from in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos not intended for transplantation.
ESC research has left legal and financial woe in its wake. This week and last, Nature revisited the fallout of the 2004 Hwang scandal (1/22/14). Science Magazine described a legal battle facing a company that has tried to patent its GM embryonic stem cells. Nature News reported that Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts company formed to run clinical trials using embryonic stem cells, is facing bankruptcy. And to this day, the promised miracle cures with ESCs remain in a nebulous future, while practical applications for iPSCs continue to be found, like hair follicle generation (Science Daily).
Update 2/06/14: New Scientist has a picture showing that the STAP technique appears to work with human cells.
Update 2/18/14: New Scientist is calling into question the STAP claim, due to irregularities in Obokata’s published images and inability of other labs to reproduce the results. Was this story indeed too good to be true?
Update 4/01/14: Obokata has been declared guilty of misconduct by a review board, but stands by her claim (Nature). Other labs are going to continue to test the method but without her procedure. See also Medical Xpress article.
Update 6/05/14: “STAP” is dead. The author finally retracted the papers (Science Magazine).
[Update: The comments below that refer to the STAP method are moot, now that the procedure has been debunked. –Ed.]
We should be cautiously optimistic with this news. Maybe it is too good to be true. If true, though, it will be another blow against ESC pushers. Remember their clamor for human embryos in the early years of the Bush presidency? Still dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 and a hot war, President Bush was hammered over his ethical qualms with embryonic stem cells. Scientific organizations unanimously called for him to loosen restrictions on research, saying without ESCs the United States would fall hopelessly behind the rest of the world. Tear-jerking commercials with Christopher Reeve and other disabled people influenced the public to pressure the administration to go along with what the scientists wanted. That all changed gradually, first with the Hwang scandal that made the world aware of the risk of politically motivated fraud in scientific research, then with the promise of iPSCs. Now, with STAP cells, the need for research with human embryos seems poised for obsolescence. Still, when you have materialist scientists believing ethics evolved from ape behavior, vigilance is always required.
One idea this discovery suggests is that stemness is a natural bodily response to stress. Watch to see if follow-up research finds that the body is able to regenerate tissues after damage. Perhaps more stressors will be found able to return cells back to their pluripotent state. If so, that would be significant indication of intelligent design. Perhaps all this work on iPSCs was a detour, necessary for increasing our understanding, but not essential for regenerative medicine itself. Researchers would need to just learn how to stimulate the body to do what it was designed to do. Biblical creationists might say that the Fall weakened that ability; perhaps decay of self-regeneration was a cause of aging that accelerated after the Flood as seen in the decreasing lifespans of the patriarchs.
Since this story appears to be moving toward a case of research ethics instead of a medical breakthrough, we should avoid giving it any credibility as far as a technique for generating iPSCs. The conclusions about iPSCs themselves, though, still stand.