"The Stress Test", by Dana Goodyear

The variety of stem cell science that has been the subject of most controversy has been the harvesting and use of cells from fetuses.  However, this intriguing account by New Yorker science writer Dana Goodyear relates the story of a revolutionary alternative to embryonic stem cells, stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. In this experimental procedure, ordinary neural cells are stressed by abrading and then agressive pipeting (a process called trituration). Some of the few cells that survive this treatment occasionally develop the ability to develop into a variety of other cell types - they act like stem cells. The germ of this idea began in the laboratory of Charles Vacanti, now retired from the Boston Brigham and Women's Hospital. But the key actor in this story is a female Japanese postdoctoral fellow named Haruko Obokata, who worked in Vacanti's laboratory and published with him, collaborator Teruhiko Wakayama of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) and the head of the CDB laboratory, Yoshiki Sasai, two revolutionary papers that described success in producing stem cells from a very simple STAP procedure involving only immersion in an acidic solution of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for a few hours. Their work was hailed as a giant step in developmental biology and was expected to both require rewriting of textbooks and to revolutionize a multibillion dollar industry.  However, within five months, after the experiments were found not to be reproducible, the papers had been withdrawn and Sasai had committed suicide. The central figure, Obokata, has been incommunicative to the press until the interviews with Goodyear that led to this article.  She continues to work at CDB, to try to prove that her previous work was neither fraudulent nor mistaken. This is a fascinating story - one that all researchers should read. 

Publication information
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The New Yorker, February 29, 2016, p. 46

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, March 2, 2016