Why did urine stem cell paper create global media sensation?

Every now and then a paper on stem cells lands many international headlines and also captures people’s imaginations.

This seems to be the case for the recent urine stem cell paper from a team in China, which has made huge headlines. In addition to mainstream media, the paper was covered in Wired here and also by one of my favorite writers, Monya Baker, of Nature here. Scientific American and other big-name sites covered it.

What’s the big deal? Hmm…..

On first glance, as much as I felt this is a somewhat cool paper, I wasn’t entirely sure why it was THAT important, especially since the same team has published making induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from urine before here.

In the current paper they made neural progenitor cells directly from urine cells so that indeed makes it kinda interesting. Also the neural cells did not form tumors when transplanted, which I think is a big deal. Puzzlingly I did not see the mention of lack of tumors in their actual paper, but it was mentioned by Monya.

Urine is also a readily available source of cells requiring no invasive procedures, not even a skin biopsy to make fibroblast cell lines or needle stick to draw blood. It can get much simpler than “pee in a cup”.

I like that in the paper (Fig. 5) they transplanted the cells in vivo and followed their behavior (see image below).

urine stem cells

Honestly all things considered, however, I do not believe the paper justified the “rock star paper” status it got from the media.

So what gives?

From the many people who have commented on the paper to me, I think they are somehow fascinated with the idea of getting stem cells from pee.

And that’s enough to boost a very good, interesting paper into an international media sensation?

I guess so.