Cheap Stem Cell Treatment, Anyone? Stem cell treatments, even those that are unproven, are prohibitive when it comes to cost. But there is hope that stem cells will become more affordable in the future. Why should we be hopeful? Because researchers in Japan and the United States led by Dr Haruko Obokata have discovered an easier way to produce stem cells through a reprogramming phenomenon called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency or STAP. If this research holds up, it is likely to lead in cheap stem cell treatment procedures in the future.
From Dr. Obokata’s article published on the medical journal, Nature (www.nature.com): “In STAP, strong external stimuli such as a transient low-pH stressor reprogrammed mammalian somatic cells, resulting in the generation of pluripotent cells. Through real-time imaging of STAP cells derived from purified lymphocytes, as well as gene rearrangement analysis, we found that committed somatic cells give rise to STAP cells by reprogramming rather than selection.”
Sounds too “sciencey” or too “medical journalese”?
Here’s a New York Times report which simplifies the language for us: “A surprising study has found that a simple acid bath might turn cells in the body into stem cells that could one day be used for tissue repair and other medical treatments. The technique, performed only with cells from mice, might turn out to be a quicker and easier source of multipurpose stem cells than methods now in use… The new technique does away with deliberate genetic changes. Instead, it involves subjecting specialized cells, like blood or skin cells, to stress. The researchers in Kobe and Boston tried various stresses, including squeezing the cells, but found that bathing the cells for half an hour in a mildly acidic solution seemed to work best. The technique worked for cells taken from various organs of newborn mice, but the efficiency was highest using white blood cells.”
Here’s a BBC report on the revolutionary stem cell procedure which, if proven to be effective on humans, could lower the cost of stem cell treatment procedures:
How has the scientific community received this new discovery? Does it pass the smell test for them? Here’s what some scientists are saying:
Sheng Ding, a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco (via NY Times): “It’s too early to say this is better, safer or more practical.”
Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London (via BBC): “I thought – ‘my God that’s a game changer!’ It’s a very exciting, but surprise, finding. It looks a bit too good to be true, but the number of experts who have reviewed and checked this, I’m sure that it is. If this works in people as well as it does in mice, it looks faster, cheaper and possibly safer than other cell reprogramming technologies – personalised reprogrammed cell therapies may now be viable.”
Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of the biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology (via NY Times): “If reproducible in humans, this could be a paradigm changer.”
Dr Dusko Ilic of Kings College London (via BBC): “The approach is indeed revolutionary. It will make a fundamental change in how scientists perceive the interplay of environment and genome. It does not bring stem cell-based therapy closer. We will need to use the same precautions for the cells generated in this way as for the cells isolated from embryos or reprogrammed with a standard method.”
Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, Medical Research Council (UK) via BBC: “It is going to be a while before the nature of these cells are understood, and whether they might prove to be useful for developing therapies, but the really intriguing thing to discover will be the mechanism underlying how a low pH shock triggers reprogramming – and why it does not happen when we eat lemon or vinegar or drink cola?”
So what’s the bottom line with this new development? Are we closer to more affordable stem cell therapies? Sadly, not yet. Although the discovery is indeed game changing and revolutionary, there’s no proof yet that this procedure will work on humans. Hopefully Dr. Obokata and company, who conducted their experiments using mice cells, will be able to replicate their results using cells from humans.
Cheap Stem Cell Treatment Update: Doubts have been raised about the validity of the results for this stem cell study. The issues raised are as follows:
1. Other scientists have been unable to duplicate the results as described by the Riken researchers.
2. That the stem cells used came from a different strain of mouse cells from that mentioned in the research. Reports the Wall Street Journal, “NHK reported that while Dr. Obokata said she was delivering stem cells from mice of the 129 strain, genetic analysis by Dr. Wakayama’s laboratory later showed they were from different strain of mouse cells, called the B6 and F1 strain.”
3. Some of the images used in the article are very similar to images used in Dr. Obokata’s doctoral thesis.
Because of these doubts both Riken Institute and Nature are conducting independent investigations. We’ll keep you posted on what turns up.
Cheap Stem Cell Treatment Update 2 (10 April 2014): Dr. Obokata admits to using wrong images in the publication of her research but maintains that the results of her study are valid.
From the Wall Street Journal: “Dr. Obokata said she was ‘very sorry’ that there were ‘many flaws’ in the papers. She blamed her inexperience in publishing scientific papers and said she wanted to ‘sincerely apologize’ to Riken and her co-authors. But she remained firm on the most divisive points. She said she didn’t intend to retract the paper, as Riken has suggested, and she expressed her conviction that she had discovered a new method of creating stem cells.”
Cheap Stem Cell Treatment, Anyone? Posted 3 February 2014. Updated 23 March 2017.