Note: Dr. Obotaka later withdrew her paper from Nature due to allegations of scientific misconduct.
By Aditya Nair
My research mentor walks into the lab room one evening with a slight smile on his face. He taps another researcher (a microbiologist) on the shoulder and says,
“Hey Dan, want to know how to make a stem cell?”
Dan, a biochemist, throws him a quizzical look.
“Just dip them in acid.”
Another funny look.
“I’m serious, man. I’ll send you the paper. Just came out in Nature.”
Talk about a “Why didn’t I think of that?” moment.
Stem cells are cells usually found in early development that have the potential to “differentiate” into many different kinds of cells. A stem cell could, depending on certain environmental factors, turn into a neuron, a bone creating cell, or a blood cell. These properties of stem cells make them almost indescribably valuable to experimental biology and biotechnology. From a scientific point of view, they offer an amazing opportunity to peer into the process of development and to answer some fundamental questions at the heart of biology: How exactly are highly organized systems crucial to life developed? How do cells “know” to organize themselves spontaneously into these highly ordered forms? From a biotechnology point of view, stem cells are a highly promising lead that will eventually allow us to regenerate dysfunctional body parts, cure paralysis, and treat certain cancers. In 2012, the Nobel Prize was awarded to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, who, with two experiments done 40 years apart, showed that mature cells could be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells (developmental cells that can turn into a diverse cohort of different cells).
Dr. Yamanaka showed that by introducing some genes into adult mouse cells, they could be reverted to their former stem cell states, essentially allowing for cells to be “reprogrammed” into a whole host of other cells. This was, and to an extent still is, considered a revolution in experimental biology and clinical research. The method that Dr. Yamanaka discovered involves adding genes to already existing cells- a process that requires the cell to be subject to a profusion of harsh conditions such as extreme heat, physical pressure, and suboptimal pH levels. By the time the process was completed, only 1% of the treated cells survived to be pluripotent stem cells. However, the work was still so important and revolutionary that Dr. Yamanaka was rewarded with a Nobel Prize.
Japanese graduate student Haruko Obokata viewed this research differently. She noticed that, as she was passing adult cells through tight pipette tips, some of the cells occasionally shrank into something the same size as a stem cell. Perhaps, thought Obokata, the stress of the transformation is responsible for changing adult cells into stem cells.
It took her five years to figure out the right method and to persuade other scientists that she was actually producing pluripotent stem cells. Understandably, her claims were initially met with skepticism, and her manuscripts were rejected as being artifacts and accidents. It’s almost as if no one could believe that merely stressing stem cells was necessary to turn them into pluripotent cells. However, the scientific method doesn’t concern itself with human feelings and intuitions; it only cares for truths and facts, and the fact remained that Obotaka had discovered an astoundingly simple new way to create stem cells. A graduate student radically revised the theories of a recent Nobel Laureate. Not only that, 7.5% of Obotaka’s treated cells successfully turn to stem cells – a great improvement from the 1% achieved by the Nobel Laureate Yamanaka.
This advance is a great success not only for Dr. Obotaka but also for the scientific process itself, showing science’s ability to continuously refine and revise itself such that its theories more closely match deep, natural truths.