Stem Cell Research: Breaking News

Dr. Fran Cogen Health Pro
  • Once again, my typical refrain “I heard it on NPR” is starting to reap dividends. On my way to Children’s National, I was astounded to learn that a Japanese research team found an incredibly simple technique of stem cell creation. Stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the human body and it is believed that timing and gene sequences during embryonic development are responsible for the development of different organs. Indeed, controversies of stem cell research in the past have been related to experimentation on embryos leading to major outcries from various sectors. Of late, other research teams have discovered other technically detailed methods to “trick” adult cells (for example-skin) to revert to embryonic stem cells. It was announced today that the paper “Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency,” by H. Obokata, T. Wakayama, Y.Sasai, K. Kojima, M.Vacanti, H. Niwa, M.Yamato and C. Vacanti, in Nature 505, 641-647 (30, January, 2014) doi:10.1038/nature12968 documented a “cellular programming phenomenon, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), which requires neither nuclear transfer nor the introduction of transcription factors.”

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    According to the authors, strong external stimuli such as acidic stresses to the somatic (adult) cells reprogrammed the cells resulting in the generation of pluripotent (stem) cells. The authors found that the adult cells derived from lymphocytes gave rise to the STAP cells by reprogramming rather than selection. In addition, the STAP cells contributed to embryos in mice.


    It is important to note that the journal Nature is one of the most prestigious journals in the world. Rigorous peer review is conducted by leading research scientists in the field before any paper is accepted into this journal. The authors must defend their results by careful statistical methods and analysis. Hence any paper included in the journal Nature must be taken seriously.


    Translation: By stressing adult mammalian cells with an acid stimulus, the authors were able to create stem cells (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency). Thus, what may be inferred from this paper is a new way of looking at how wounds heal; for example, a burn. New cells are formed to develop new skin. However, it is possible that these new cells that are created secondary to the “noxious” stimulus are stem or pluripotent cells that are somehow directed to become new adult skin cells! Is this the underlying process of how we formulate new cells that are injured? Keep in mind that the research has only been conducted in mice and NOT in humans.


    How is this related to autoimmune type 1 diabetes? Can we somehow recreate stem cells that will become insulin producing pancreatic beta cells using noxious stimuli? We do know that the body continues to produce new beta cells even after the autoimmune attack of the T-cells. One may then conjecture that with injury to the beta cells the regenerative process includes the production of stem (STAP) cells that then develop into mature beta cells. Can we somehow coax our own personal skin cells to become STAP cells and recreate a pancreatic islet cell without the sophisticated and intricate methods described in recent scholarly journals? I know I must temper my enthusiasm as this research has been only conducted in mice. However, mice are mammals and it has been demonstrated that mice and men share about 97.5 percent of their working DNA (98.5 percent -- only one additional percentage point is shared between chimpanzees and humans, our closest mammalian relative). I am certain that there will now be a flurry of research using the techniques on human cells as described in this Nature paper.


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    What’s next?

Published On: February 05, 2014