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

STAP is back?vacanti-stap-figure-2017

Really?

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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Clinics can’t retract stem cell treatments gone bad

Stem cell facelift comicYou can stop taking a pill or an injection treatment, but you can’t stop or retract stem cell treatments if there’s a bad side effect.

Unlike other kinds of medicines, once stem cells have been transplanted into patients, if something goes wrong you cannot stop the ‘treatment’. There’s no retraction possible because transplanted stem cells spread in the body and potentially integrate.

One of the striking things in the commercial stem cell arena in 2016 was the emergence of patient lawsuits against stem cell clinics including two proposed class action suits. These patients, and I count potentially now more than a dozen, allege a variety of harms ranging from tumors to blindness. The reason I mention this is that there appears to be huge potential for harm to patients from unapproved stem cell therapies. I know a lot of patients who would wish they could undo what the stem cell clinic did. It’s just not possible.Stem cell cartoon

Even in an appropriately regulated stem cell trial context, there’s no easy way to undo stem cell transplants. There has been talk for years about suicide genes to be inserted into stem cells to provide “a net” should something go awry with stem cell treatments, but it’s not clear how well these would work and stem cell clinics aren’t interested in that anyway.

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Public stem cell skirmish erupts between Hanna & Jaenisch

Professor Rudolf Jaenisch of MIT and his former postdoc/now assistant professor at The Weizmann Jacob Hanna have gotten into a very public, stem cell skirmish over conflicting papers. Hanna raised concerns over a Jaenisch lab paper and things have escalated from there.

Jaenisch & Hanna

This mess is playing out before our eyes on PubMed (there was a comment from Hanna on the Jaenisch lab paper, but now removed), PubPeer (scroll down near the bottom of the comments on that page for several items), on the website of the journal Cell Stem Cell where Hanna also left a comment, and on Twitter, where Hanna posted an edgy series of tweets (see latest below).

Note that the now deleted PubMed comment was nearly the same as the one from Hanna still on PubPeer. Hanna also posted a comment on a Jaenisch PNAS paper from this year and that comment has now been removed as well from PubMed.

It’s not every day that you see biologists duking it out in the wide open like this. Well, maybe a stem cell skirmish happens every month or two, but not every day. This one has quickly gotten pretty ugly.

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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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Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) book is a #1 best seller

Obokata book AmazonHaruko Obokata wrote a book about the STAP cell scandal telling it from her perspective.

Fom all accounts I’ve seen, she has sought in her writings to shift the blame away from herself. She even claimed she was framed by other scientists. To say I’m skeptical would be an understatement.

Will this book have any impact? Many scientists thought it would make a splash and then fade away.

Not so, at least so far.

At present Obokata’s book is the #1 best-selling book on all of Amazon Japan, which is a huge deal. A hat tip to Dr. Robert Geller for the heads up on this.

Clearly in Japan a very large number of people are buying this book, which both raises the possibility that it could be influential on public opinion there and that she could profit handsomely from its sales. Her publisher apparently has given her a $50,000 USD equivalent advance, but if the book sells beyond expectations she could get even more.

Might it be translated into English?

Do people believe the claims in the book? The reviews on Amazon Japan are very mixed with many one-star reviews with harsh words and overall not a great rating, but there are five-star reviews too.