Bioethics Blogs

The Acid Test: Turning Regular Cells Into Stem Cells

Green blobs on a grey background

Caption: A new type of stem cells, called STAPs.
Haruko Obokata, RIKEN Ctr. for Dev. Biol., Kobe, Japan

Updated July 2, 2014: Since these two papers were published in the journal Nature, more than a dozen research teams have been unable to replicate the STAP findings. On April 1, RIKEN found the main author Haruko Obokata guilty of scientific misconduct. On July 2, Nature accepted requests from all co-authors to retract the papers and published an editorial discussing the retractions.


Taking a 30-minute soak in a bath of acid might not sound like a good thing. But it happens to be the latest—and the most shockingly simple—strategy for creating stem cells.

The powerful appeal of stem cells for science and medicine lies in the fact that they are both self-renewing and pluripotent, which means they can develop into almost any type of cell in the body. Stem cell technology offers an essentially limitless supply of specialized cells to researchers for exploring the fundamentals of biology, screening for new drugs, and developing new ways to regenerate damaged tissue and repair diseased organs.

When this technology first emerged in the 1980s, the only way to obtain stem cells was by harvesting them from an embryo. Then, in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka at Japan’s Kyoto University stunned the scientific world when he figured out how to reprogram adult skin cells into stem cells using a “cocktail” of just four genes. This new kind of stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, earned Yamanaka the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.