Quickie stem cells? Not so fast


A quick method to generate stem cells in the lab that caused a big splash earlier this year is not looking so hot after all. In January, researchers from Japan published details in the journa l Nature abo ut how stressing mouse cells by exposing them to acid could “reprogram” them to act like stem cells.

The announcement of this “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP) method generated much excitement: if it worked it could provide another and relatively easy route to generate stem cells in the lab without needing to source them from embryonic tissues.

It was one of those discoveries that looked a bit too good to be true, and now the dust has settled, it seems that it is.

Scientists have reported having difficulty in generating stem cells using the procedure, there were apparent irregularities in the published work and it is now reported that an author on one of the January papers is calling for it to be pulled from the scientific record.

Prof Frank Barry, who directs the Regenerative Medicine Institute (Remedi) at NUI Galway, has serious reservations about the work.

“When it was first published in January I was a bit sceptical that it could apparently be done do easily,” he says.

“I wondered why cells in the stomach, for instance, didn’t become reprogrammed because they are exposed to acid conditions. And it seems that the methods cannot be reproduced, despite many efforts in other labs around the world – one of our colleagues at Remedi tried to make STAP cells and also failed.

“If the method works, then it will be a benefit to those of us interested in stem cells. If it doesn’t work, it will be remembered only as a frustrating and wasteful distraction at at time when we really need to get on with developing stem cell therapies.”