Stem Cell Breakthrough Broken

stem cell
Scientists and the general public around the world were enthralled by reports that a team of researchers had successfully derived stem cells from non-embryonic cells in the human body. The findings were presented in two papers published in Nature. The findings had just entered the peer-review process. The researchers’ results had yet to be replicated and cross-confirmed by other scientists. Excitement over the research is beginning to wane, however, as a variety of doubts regarding the papers validity are burgeoning.

Stem cells possess the remarkable ability to turn into any other type of cell within the human body. The hope is that stem cells can replace other cells in the human body that no longer function. In 2012, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University was awarded the Nobel Prize for successfully turning other cells into stem cells. Extrapolating the stem cells was achieved by extirpating human embryos. The method is polarizing between the religious right and the liberal left.

Finding an alternative method to extrapolate stem cells would satisfy the interests of both parties. This is why so much excitement was fueled by the claims that researchers had successfully derived stem cells from cells that did not make up a human embryo. The study was led by Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan.

The results of the study suggested that stem cells could be derived by an easier method that was less ethically contentious. The researchers took skin and blood cells, let them replicate, and then subjected the cells to levels of stress to the brink of death. The stress included low oxygen levels and bathing the cells in a weak, acid solution for about 30 minutes. The team of scientists found that the cells had survived the stress by reverting back to a state that was the equivalent of an embryonic state.

Unfortunately, the researchers are requesting the study to be retracted for a variety of reasons. Scientists could not achieve the same results in the lab using the same methods documented in the original paper. The researchers of the original study claimed that they would issue a list of tips to help other scientists reproduce their results in the lab.

In addition, scientists found that the original paper contained duplicated images from Obokata’s doctoral dissertation. Obokata’s dissertation centered on developing stem cells from an embryonic state that was completely different than the methods used in the study recently published. As a corollary of this finding, scientists from around the globe called for the paper to be retracted. The failure of other researchers to duplicate the experiment might shed light on what went wrong in the original study.

The failure of the study illustrates the importance of the scientific method coupled with the peer review process. The paper also illustrates that caution should be met by the media and general public alike in face of extraordinary claims. Yet the study was not a complete failure. By weeding out false hypotheses, scientists slowly chisel their way towards truth. And that is an exercise that is worth reporting on.

By Nathan Cranford


NY Times
NY Daily News
The Verge

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