STAP cells (stap細胞) are real deal says new Vacanti patent declaration

STAP is back?vacanti-stap-figure-2017


No, I don’t believe so, but there’s an interesting development and twist on the STAP cell front.

Just a few days ago on January 4, 2017 Dr. Charles Vacanti, the originator of the STAP cells concept, submitted a declaration to the USPTO affirming the belief that STAP cells are real and requesting that the patent office allow the rejected STAP patent application to be reconsidered.

I find a number of aspects of this development notable:

  • The declaration says they have generated new data supporting STAP, but the two figures shown are in my opinion unconvincing. More specifically, just showing some floating spheres and an image of a single cell (not even stained for a marker) doesn’t really prove anything. You can see a snapshot of Figure 1 above. Note that in May 2016 an Obokata-associated website posted some supposed STAP validation data as well, but in my view it too wasn’t at all convincing.
  • qPCR results on induced expression of pluripotency genes are mentioned, but I didn’t see that actual data in the document or other related documents so as far as I can tell it can’t be evaluated at this point. Update: I’m still searching to see if I can find a patent document that shows the new qPCR and it may be in there somewhere. Stay tuned. BTW, you can look at the patent documents directly yourself at this USPTO website. Plug in patent application #14/397,080 and click on the tab at the top that reads “Image File Wrapper”. I’m not a patent expert so there may be other useful tabs at the top as well where for instance the qPCR data could be found or other information.
  • The declaration expresses concern with how Nature handled the STAP cell situation with the retractions, indicating that in the view of some of the authors there should have been an indication that the authors believed the concept was real.
  • Why do some of the STAP authors believe in it still but many others in the stem cell field don’t? Apparently, according to the declaration, the other labs who tried the STAP method just didn’t use the proper technique. I have doubts about that explanation. For instance, Vacanti’s own Harvard/B&W’s colleague George Daley and other top stem cell scientists published two BCA pieces in Nature refuting the existence of STAP. Reportedly they even did some of this work in Vacanti’s own lab with someone who was an author on the STAP papers.
  • The STAP cell patent application has been transferred to a private company called Vcell Therapeutics, Inc., which seems somewhat obscure. A Japanese blog has dug into this situation and mentions a J. Kelly Ganjei, a name I’m not familiar with, as a leader of Vcell. There’s even some speculation that Vcell may be short for “Vacanti cell”, but I don’t know about that. Given the sound of the company’s name I can’t help but think of VSELs, another controversial kind of stem cell, when reading the word “Vcell”.

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The Niche top posts of 2016

stem cell fireworksWhat were the top posts here on The Niche for the past year? I’ve listed some of them below along with some posts from 2015 that remain highly read.

Some top 2016 posts

2015 and older posts that remain highly read every day

Nature Biotechnology looking at NgAgo paper amidst reproducibility concerns

When potentially game changing new technologies are reported such as NgAgo gene editing, both scientists and the public get excited, but especially if such new reports stem from a single paper it is wise to take a cautious approach for a while. The key question is whether the new findings will turn out to be reproducible.

With the case of NgAgo specifically, the Nature Biotechnology paper reporting potentially very desirable gene editing properties, drew a lot of interest. See archived blog posts on NgAgo here.

NgAgo China newspaper

Snapshot of part of China Daily article. Photo Credit Dr. Robert Geller

However, recently many within the scientific community have reported consistent difficulties in getting NgAgo to function as reported. Gaetan Burgio did a guest post here presenting 7 figures of data that together paint a picture of NgAgo not functioning at all like CRISPR.

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Controversy over CRISPR challenger NgAgo irreproducibility reported

Does the new gene editing method NgAgo work or not? If not, what happened? The answers to both questions seem to depend on who you ask and what you read.

Fang Shimin (方是民) NgAgo

Wikipedia image

As much as CRISPR has been the revolutionary in the genetic modification technology arena over past methods, could CRISPR itself in the next few years become obsolete having been replaced by other new technologies such as the upstart NgAgo? I doubt it.

The odds for NgAgo making a run in this field may have gone down lately, at least based on a comment left by Sheng Qiang on my original post on NgAgo:

“A war of word broke out on the reproducibility of Han’s work these days, especially on the Mitbbs website. The doubters, represented by Zhouzi Fang, said that no labs have repeated Han’s work, especially the Figure 4 results. The supporters claimed that 20 labs in China already repeated Han’s work, yet no data have been shown to support the claim. The doubters suspect that this is another STAP cell incident for China. To be fair, we should probably give more time for labs around the world to repeat Han’s work, which was trumpeted in the Chinese media to be a Nobel prize worthy scientific breakthrough. Let’s just hope that this will not go down the same path as the STAP cells.”

The Zhouzi Fang mentioned seems to most likely be Fang Shimin (方是民), pictured above, who has a Wikipedia page here that mentions his role as a popular science writer who campaigns against pseudoscience and fraud. It also discusses a number of controversies in which he has been involved. I wonder if he might be like Japan’s juuichijigen who played a key role in uncovering STAP. I don’t know.

I’m hoping to learn more about this NgAgo situation so that we all can better judge what the status of NgAgo research might be. The notion that this could be another STAP-like situation would be very unfortunate, but it seems there’s not enough information now to judge and that’s a serious thing to assert. I agree with the commenter that more time is needed before we can be sure what’s what here.

So what is out there on discussions over NgAgo as to whether it works or not?

I did find this page on an “NgAgo” search onMitbbs (which when Google crudely translates it) seems to fit with what the commenter says about a war of words, but I have no idea if that page is reliable.

I also found this Chinese-language science news site reporting on the NgAgo controversy.

This Google group page on NgAgo also has some researchers reporting it doesn’t work for them, but others said it did work.

Overall, I’d say the jury is out, but it’s clear there are strong opinions both ways on NgAgo.

Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) website posts dubious STAP cell validation data

Haruko Obokata is most well-known for her role as first author of the now retracted two STAP cell Nature papers. These manuscripts claimed to have made pluripotent and even totipotent stem cells simply by stressing cells out with acid treatment or in other ways. Nobody else could get this method to work to create the so-called STAP cells.

It was an all around scientific disaster and I don’t know anyone who believes that STAP cells are real, but Obokata and another one of her mentors, Dr. Charles Vacanti have still at times indicated their belief in STAP.

STAP cell Obokata 2016

Screenshot from STAP Hope website

Obokata appears to have launched a new website at the end of March of this year and there was a sense that this site along with her memoir-like book would together tell her side of the story plus might continue to push the notion that STAP is real. Update: it is formally possible that Obokata is not running this website so I have made a few change to this post.

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