July 12, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Dr. Lee STAP Result, Hyped by Media, in Proper Context

Yesterday was a crazy day for the STAP cell situation. We had RIKEN releasing a scathing internal investigatory report and then some folks in the media got all worked up about a single PCR assay result that Dr. Ken Lee posted on ResearchGate. Some of the reporters/science writers hyped their headlines/articles on this situation as though STAP cells had been proven real. On the other end of the spectrum quite a few people thought that Ken was pulling an April Fool’s Day prank, which he wasn’t.

GFP+ germ cells, STAP cells
Ken Lee STAP control
A few media folks did a great job like Monte Morin at the LA Times and Karen Weintraub at the Boston Globe.
Still others responded to constructive criticism of their arguably over-the-top headlines by changing them. Kudos to them. For example WIRED had a piece entitled “‘Fabricated’ stem cell paper may have just been proven valid” and I see now that the title seems to be changed to the far more accurate “‘Fabricated’ stem cell paper technique may yet be proven valid”. At least I think these WIRED articles with different headers are one and the same.
Ken has been doing the most rigorous attempts that I know of at replicating STAP cells since the Nature papers came out without any STAP success.
However, Ken’s new results just recently posted were just the tiniest, itty bittiest hopeful and different this time. The new result of a single PCR assay shows the levels of 2 pluripotency-related genes (Oct4 and Nanog) increased 8-10-fold in triturated cells, but oddly enough that change was not evident in the cells with both trituration plus acid treatment. Sox2 was not changed in any sample.
So this is extremely preliminary and as yet quite limited in scope.
One PCR assay on a few genes (even if interesting) shouldn’t cause people to hyperventilate or the equivalent in their media headlines.
As I told the LA Times, injured or dying cells can fire off random changes in gene expression that are hard to make sense of most of the time. These new results do not prove that STAP is real at this point and probably the odds are way against this ultimately replicating STAP.
Typically during other forms of induced pluripotency a whole slew of dozens of stem cell genes are turned on and can increase by 100-fold or 1000-fold in levels from the starting non-stem cells.
Ken also indicated that it appeared all the stressed cells were in the process of dying and would be dead by day 3, which is not supposed to happen when one makes STAP cells according to the STAP authors. To do stuff like form teratoma, contribute to embryos, and more, STAP cells need to be healthy and proliferative. Ken harvested all the cells and stopped the experiment because they were dead or dying.
I find this one experiment notable and definitely worth following as Ken’s lab continues this series of experiments, but I urge caution about interpreting this one result too broadly.
Finally, I want to give a big hat tip to Ken for all his hard work on trying out different STAP methods.
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