Easy New Ways To Make Stem Cells, With A Squeeze Or A Dip

Just shy of 10 years after scientists first made embryonic-like stem cells from adult cells, another team finds a totally different way to do it.

Photo Of A Mouse Fetus From The STAP Stem Cells Work

Haruko Obokata

Yeah, sometimes when I'm stressed out, it makes me wish I were a kid again, too.

A team of scientists has discovered a way to transform adult cells into pluripotent stem cells—the type of stem cells that is akin to embryonic stem cells, that scientists are so interested in because they are able to develop into any type of cell that appears in the body. To trigger the change, the team, including researchers from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan and Harvard Medical School, stressed adult cells. Three types of stresses worked, Nature News reports: a toxin that punches holes in the cells' membranes, a dip in an acid bath, and being squeezed.

For biologists familiar with stem cells, the simplicity of the new methods seems almost magical. One outside researcher The Boston Globe talked with said the stress processes were "almost like alchemy."

These new methods are entirely different from the methods scientists have been using to make so-called induced pluripotent stem cells over the past ten years. The scientist who first discovered how to make induced pluripotent stem cells, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka, won a Nobel Prize for his work in 2012. Yamanaka and others who refined his technique added genes to adult cells to turn them pluripotent.

Because they are so different, the makers of the stress-made pluripotent stem cells gave them their own name: stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells, or STAP cells.

Besides being able to make pluripotent cells in a totally new way, the discovery of STAP cells has several other consequences for biology. One, it bolsters controversial findings that adult bodies are able to make pluripotent cells. Adult bodies may make those cells when stressed, Charles Vacanti, a tissue engineering researcher at Harvard who worked on the STAP cells, told Nature News. Two, STAP cells may make cloning easier.

There's lots more. Check out Nature and the Globe for details and for a hint of the long, hard work the RIKEN-Harvard team put into proving STAP cells are truly pluripotent. The STAP results were published in two papers in the journal Nature.