Saturday, February 1, 2014


A group of researchers led by Japanese scientists working with research institutions in the U.S. have made a discovery that could well be one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biological science.

Working on a theory proposed by a young Japanese scientist who had her work rebuffed several times by scientific journals the team developed a new way to produce pluripotent stem cells that seem to have none of the ethical or technical problems of earlier methods.

Pluripotent stem cells have the potential to develop into diverse kinds of tissue in the body which means that they could be used, theoretically, to replace damaged spinal cords in paralysis victims and also to regenerate diseased organs. This would, of course, have enormous benefits to millions of people.

The two other types of pluripotent stem cells are either harvested from live embryos (embryonic stem cells or ES) or created by putting skin cells through a series of tedious and difficult genetic manipulations which result in what are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). The first method has a 50% success rate but is ethically problematic since it involves killing human embryos. The second method uses skin cells so there are no ethical problems, but it's success rate is only about .1%. Both methods also tend to produce stem cells that become cancerous in the body.

The new method, called STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency), uses white blood cells, has a success rate of about 30%, and has no carcinogenic effects. It can also produce a wider variety of tissues and the pluripotent cells are produced much more easily and quickly than iPS cells.

An article in The Japan News describes the research. Here are some excerpts:
The stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells announced by a joint international research team from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe and Harvard Medical School in Boston have a high capacity for developing into various other cells and can be produced easily and quickly—in just two days at the quickest.

These unique features are unseen in other pluripotent cells, such as embryonic stem (ES) cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

Scientists the world over are reacting with amazement at the finding, which overturns accepted beliefs in biology. Expectations are growing that STAP cells may be applied in future medical treatments and the development of new drugs.

ES cells are harvested mainly from slightly developed embryos from fertilized eggs, destroying the embryo in the process. In the creation of iPS cells, three to four types of genes are introduced into somatic cells using viral vectors to forcibly “reset” them, reverting the cells to a state resembling a fertilized egg.

Both methods require advanced techniques.

In making STAP cells, however, somatic cells can be reset just by applying strong stimuli [exposure to acid]. Such transformation is known to occur in plants, but the team’s researchers have shown that animal cells possess the same ability.

While it takes two to three weeks to produce iPS cells, STAP cells can be produced in as little as about two days.

The finding is a major discovery likely to change the framework of life science research, said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a U.S. biotechnology company that specializes in clinical applications of pluripotent cells.
This is all interesting enough but the story of the 30 year-old woman who actually pioneered the theory and who refused to give up despite rebuffs from prominent scientists is perhaps even more interesting. You can read about her here.

Thanks to VJTorley at Uncommon Descent for posting the story.