People rushing to start new experiments. I think it is fair to say that I have never seen such a level of excitement in a scientific department as I saw last Thursday. Maybe because I was not in the stem cell field in ’06 when Yamanaka generated pluripotent stem cells from adult cells and I was not even a scientist in ‘97 when Wilmut’s lab cloned a sheep out of an adult cell.

Colony of reprogramed human cells growing on top of a feeder layer of mouse embryonic fibroblast.

Colony of reprogramed human cells growing on top of a feeder layer of mouse embryonic fibroblast.

A new, potentially disruptive technology has arrived; one that -if reproducible- will save millions of pounds and pour previous investments down the drain. If the new method is reproducible, making patient-specific stem cells will be very cheap and very easy. You will not even need a biosafety 2 lab, a level 1 (the lowest) will do.

Haruko Obokata from the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe Japan–Homeland of so many advances in the Stem Cells field- reprogramed adult cells into stem cell-like cells by simply lowering the pH of normal cell culture medium by 2 units. This treatment will kill the cells if they are left in the medium long enough but it seems to drive the cells to a naïve, undifferentiated, embryonic-like state if they are kept in there for just 30 min. The reason why environmental stress will confer these properties to mammalian cells is unknown but it is a common feature in plants.

There are of course some caveats that will have to be tackled. Obokata used mouse cells and experience tells us that reprograming human cells is much more difficult*. It is also worrying that the final product, these new pluripotent stem cells, cannot be propagated in culture indefinitely like normal stem cells; this will greatly limit their potential. However, a subsequent treatment of the cells seems to be useful in conferring the desirable self-renewal ability.

On Thursday many young lads in my department were rushing to set up their own experiments to replicate Obokata results. If they (and I) succeed, life would be much easier –and cheaper- in the stem cell field. For regenerative medicine, this could be a dream come true: up to now, producing stem cells from adults required quite a bit of genetic manipulations in a dish. Such treatments rendered the cells almost useless for transplantation due to regulatory and safety reasons. With stem cells generated without any foreign DNA or RNA or even nasty chemicals, approval for clinical trials will be much simpler.


* Some say however she’s also achieved reprogramming of human cells as well, so look out for a new paper soon.


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  • Donald A. Neeper 14/03/2014 at 8:16 pm

    You described how several young workers in your department rushed to set up their own tests of Obokata’s results. That’s the classical excitement in science, testing a new idea. It works best if the science is at the small scale, whereas in my own (former) research, a good exploratory experiment might require months to set up and US$ 100k in funding—and that’s not so-called Big Science where the costs start at $10M or more.

    Because much biochemistry can be done by one worker in a small lab, it is the leading-edge science now. Unfortunately, the media are quick to build spectacular-sounding projections of future cures or increased longevity from any quantum advance in cell biology. The media are less quick to focus attention on societal and global challenges that have no small-scale research yielding promises for rapid advances. As you have pointed out, stem cell research ran into a blockade when it clashed with belief systems. Research or action on social or global problems of resources, income disparity, immigration, and population is likewise thwarted by denial and belief that are embedded in the complex system that is society—whether local or global. The controversy over climate change is one example.

    Please continue to write, including your assessment of the societal impacts of the science you know so well.

    • Ariel Poliandri 17/03/2014 at 6:53 am

      Why thank you Donald!
      I wouldn’t say that Stem Cell Research (or any cutting-edge molecular biology work) comes cheap though. Japan’s last year budged for Stem Cell Research was 1 bn dollars (with that kind of money you are bound to discover something).
      I agree that other areas are not as well funded and perhaps they should. But when you come out the lab research becomes so much politicised that some times is difficult to decide where to put the eggs.
      Regarding the STAP article briefly reviewed in this post:
      Well, as far as I know no one outside RIKEN has yet been able to reproduce the experiments. If no one can, the paper might be retracted and it will be a wonderful example of how true science works: You do not believe blindly. If evidence points in other direction you change your mind.

  • John Cother 04/02/2014 at 3:11 pm

    Great news; my brotherr in-law is currently waiting for a donor for stem cells.

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