The Acidic Elixir of Life

By Anna Tiley

A few weeks ago, two papers were published in the journal Nature by a young female researcher in Japan, and they have been causing quite a stir. The researcher, Dr Haruko Obokata, claims to have made stem cells from fully developed adult cells using an incredibly simple method. If these findings are true, they have the potential to make stem cell research easier, cheaper and less ethically controversial.

Stem cells are essential from the very start of our lives right through to our growth and development. These are adaptable cells which can specialise to become all the different parts of our body from our blood to our nervous system. The ability to change into almost any cell type means that stem cells could be the key to curing many diseases and replacing organs and tissues.

stem cells

However, they are tricky to work with as they are hard to obtain, for example from bone marrow donations. They also have ethical implications as is the case with embryo-derived stem cells. In addition, once a stem cell progresses to become a certain cell type it is not normally able to go back to being a stem cell.

More recently, another team of scientists were able to induce mature adult cells to revert back to their original stem cell-like state in the lab. Although this was a key breakthrough, the process is both costly and time consuming. For this reason, the recent paper published in Nature has caused a lot of excitement among the scientific community.

The authors of the paper claim to have been able to make ordinary white blood cells from mice revert back to having stem cell-like properties by simply treating them with acid. These were termed STAP cells and it is believed that the acid acts as an environmental stress which causes them to change back to their original stem cell-like state.

STAP cells were identified by linking a gene which indicated the presence of stem cells to a gene called a green fluorescent protein (GFP) which makes cells glow bright green. Those with stem cell-like characteristics therefore glowed green. The STAP cells were introduced into early mouse embryos to see whether they could form other tissue types. Not only did the results show that the STAP cells contributed to all the tissues observed in the mice, but in their offspring too. This shows that the STAP cells are able to make both normal body tissue cells as well as those involved in sexual reproduction, a key characteristic of true stem cells.

Although these results show exciting potential for the future of stem cell research, there have been recent concerns about the credibility of the results. Last week it was announced that the study is under investigation after bloggers noticed inconsistencies in the data. This is therefore an area to keep an eye on!