Squeeze PR on stem cell paper evokes STAP cell bad vibrations, gets corrected

Just how often do press releases (PR) get science wrong?

A new paper came out from the lab of Matthias Lutolf in Nature Materials that seems interesting. Using a special matrix, reprogramming of cells reportedly worked better.stem cell squeeze

Good stuff.

However, a (PR) from the home institution of EPFL and media pick up on the story used unfortunate language that evoked the STAP cell mess of 2014 regarding this new paper.

For instance the PR is poorly entitled “squeezing cells into stem cells” and it had started out with this doozie:

“EPFL scientists have developed a new method that turns cells into stem cells by “squeezing” them. The method paves the way for large-scale production of stem cells for medical purposes.”

I think that saying “squeeze” was not an accurate metaphor and unfortunately at the same time it made nearly everyone think of STAP cells, which had been claimed to be able to be created using low pH or pressure as in a “squeeze”. A bunch of people contacted me about the PR and they weren’t happy.

The new paper does not claim to make stem cells just using a “squeeze” as the PR said. This is a really big oops moment on the institutional promotion of this particular paper.

The manuscript itself is interesting and it makes sense that 3D growth would impact reprogramming by a Yamanaka cocktail of factors. The PR should not have suggested that the 3D growth and the gel used alone made it happen though and the use of the squeeze metaphor was unfortunate. If the gel does indeed exert pressure on the cells that is only one aspect that might aid reprogramming. The 3D nature and constituents of the gel could be what helps.

The silver lining here is that I contacted Dr. Lutolf to chat about the paper and the PR, and he exerted some pressure on the PR folks and got the PR changed to be more carefully worded. Kudos to him.

They now have included (see above) a funny, but perhaps iffy video on the paper that includes the word “magic” and some other problems. Also unfortunately the correction of the PR was not entirely successful as it is still over the top.

Again, I want to emphasize that the PR glitches do not reflect on the science itself or the scientists involved in the research.

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