The ‘Holy Crap’ Effect: Reflecting on Big Splash Papers

Raymond Holy CrapI spend some hours each week reading and thinking about the recent scientific literature. I’m sure many of you do the same thing.

Every so often, a new paper erupts on the scene. It makes a big splash with a flashy entrance that captures people’s attention all around the globe.

What’s the best way for scientists to handle such super sexy science papers?

This week I am of course referring to the STAP stem cell papers in Nature.

These particular papers argue a truly shocking finding:  reportedly you can reprogram ordinary boring cells into extraordinary embryonic stem cell-like cells using a simple, seemingly fast protocol of acid treatment. In other words, the authors assert that you can basically make iPS-like cells without all the fuss and muss and time we usually associate with making iPS cells.

My first reaction was something along the lines of “Holy crap!”

To me, as someone who has been growing and studying cells for literally half my life, it seems incredible that simply shocking cells for a while with low pH would induce a specific pluripotency program in the cellular survivors.

Both my gut feeling and my rational thinking on this together coincide with the sense that there’s got to be more to this story than meets the eye.

However, I put first reaction/first impression aside and I carefully read the first paper on the actual production and characterization of STAP stem cells without any preconceptions.

Frankly, nothing stood out to me as a particular problem with the paper.

But still it seemed to me too simple and too good to be true. That was my feeling at least. I haven’t had time to carefully read the 2nd paper on the reported totipotency of STAP stem cells.

As I was trying to digest all of these thoughts and reactions to STAP, there was a media frenzy about it across the globe. Non-scientists I know were telling me about how they heard that acid could make stem cells. The penetrance into pop culture of STAP was very fast and deep.

My email and phone started doing a STAP dance. Some very smart people, very knowledgable people were telling me they didn’t quite believe in STAP or were very skeptical. But no one was saying anything about the papers themselves or the data as being a concern.

So I decided to do a poll on my blog about STAP cells to sample my very smart readers for their collective opinions: Do you believe in STAP cells? The poll is still running BTW if you want to weigh in.

Someone on Twitter took exception to my poll and another person Tweeted that they were struck on the poll focus on “belief” in stem cells.

I see their points. In Science we are supposed to focus on data and evidence, right?

But what do we do when a big splash paper really shakes things up, causes a media frenzy, and we as scientists do not have anything to go on for independent verification of what is going on?

It seems entirely appropriate to me–during the interim between when a huge paper comes out and when there is either validation or failure to validate by independent groups–to boil it down to a simple question. Do you believe the paper or not or are you somewhere in between?

It’s OK for scientists to believe in or not believe in things or be confused about what the heck to believe. We are not robots.

So for now, for me, the best answer to the whole STAP stem cell explosion is that I remain skeptical, but cannot really be sure until I see more data. Yeah, that seems a decidedly untidy, nebulous way to think on a Friday afternoon about the biggest science story of the week and certainly of the year 2014 so far, but sometimes that’s just the way science is. Perhaps the bigger the splash, the more you should reserve judgement? That can be hard to do in the context of the media going bonkers.


  1. I understand your skepticism and confusion completely. This whole thing seems so counter intuitive and to be frank I’m a little jealous that I didn’t discover this myself (scientists are still human after all). It’s just so simple if it’s true. I could have done this experiment as an undergrad. There has to be some hidden complexity but I digress.

    Another thing I’m confused about is why didn’t they use human cells. It wouldn’t be difficult to report on both cell types because there’s no obvious rate limiting step and the experiments can easily be done in parallel. Am I wrong?

    Did the team hint that they are sitting on data using human cells? Otherwise the race is on right?

  2. Aren’t these just of form of stress selected stem cells? If so, hasn’t this research been going on for some time? I don’t see these is a seminal event but just another step in the road towards developing cells with very specific properties to fit niche drug discovery and regenerative medicine applications.

    • Hi Pete. I think these researchers seemed to be claiming something much bigger. They can turn differentiated entirely non-stem cells (think zero potency) into pluripotent and even totipotent stem cells via stress. Now with Vacanti in his interview with me saying that STAP stem cells are the same as the very controversial spore stem cells that his lab reported a dozen or so years ago, frankly I’m not sure what to think.

  3. The holy crap response is disingenuous. Anybody who has studied the history behind the development of pluripotent cell culture must know that it´s genesis is pushing cancerous cells to grow for induction of the lytic cycle of tumour virus. Proliferation is a main quality of es stem cells, iPS and other stem cells….and cancer cells. Moreover, physiologically, cell culture is woefully artificial. Stem cell colonies growing in culture? Do we find es stem cell like colonies growing in mice or humans, growing at 20% O2 tension? ES cells do not even exist after the ICM has disappeared. Why insert them back into the body in any form?

    VSELs, which the Vacanti paper has given strong credence to , and in effect has clarified the VSEL mystery as to how they arise. VSELs solve all the setbacks of ES stem cells and iPS, makes them irrelevant for regenerative purposes. ES and iPS based tissue research, my own included, is becoming dangerously futile.

    Holy crap is the response of all the financial interested people saying………………”We done!”

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