STAP cells and High Temp Superconductors, one pass, one fail

Posted on December 24, 2014


Stem cells have had a rough press this year and mostly due to one piece of research. STAP cells were supposed to offer a quick and cheap way of producing pluripotent cells that could transform medicine, organ regeneration and growth. It did not quite work out that way.

Just days ago press outlets around the world carried the withering news that Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata had resigned her position. She had failed to replicate an experiment most saw as revolutionary, if proven successful, to create pluripotent stem cells that could be used to mend tissues and organs, using a 30 minute treatment in acid. It was the culmination of almost a year of humiliation for the promising researcher and she said: “I even can’t find the words for an apology.”

Efficacy of her research published in January was put under pressure from the beginning, simply because the find was so exciting. Scientists wanted to replicate the experiment and take leaps forward in their ability to make induced pluripotent stem cells. Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) offered a way to turn adult cells into many different types of cell, potentially any cell, and create a personalised cell bank so individuals could replace diseased and damaged tissue.

human embryonic stem cell colony on a mouse embryonic fibroblast feeder layer.

human embryonic stem cell colony on a mouse embryonic fibroblast feeder layer.

Spring Broke
In April stories emerged saying that the results had been fabricated. Japan’s Riken scientific institute disowned Obokata’s findings saying that she had made up data. An investigator said it had been manipulated to make the results look better – a claim Obokata refuted. She gave a news conference saying that mistakes had been made but the results could be verified and she would do so personally once certain health issues had resolved. Sadly, the young researcher had been hospitalised with doctors calling her physical and mental state ‘unstable’.

Worse followed with the suicide of one of Obokata’s research team mates. Despite its best efforts a Riken team was unable to reproduce the results. By September a statement came from Charles Vacanti, Harvard professor and co-author on the paper, advising scientists to alter their method to make STAP cells easier to create, but with time and patience running out for Obokata to replicate her results, in November the jig was up and she resigned in December. Giving the researcher time to recreate her experiment was seen as an honourable thing to do, but disappointingly (and no doubt expectedly) nothing came of it.

So ends a strange scientific affair that it is hard to draw easy conclusions from, apart from perhaps that the pressure to succeed had drawn a promising scientist into deceiving her peers, despite the likelihood that it would be discovered. That in itself is hard to fathom. It is hard not to feel sorry for all involved as everyone would have dearly loved to have an easier way to make life-saving cells for many people afflicted with poor health.


Stable levitation of a magnet on top of a superconductor of cuprate type YBa2Cu3O7 cooled at -196°C.

Stable levitation of a magnet on top of a superconductor of cuprate type YBa2Cu3O7 cooled at -196°C.

Hot Superconductors
Common or garden hydrogen sulphide – yes, the same H2S that makes rotten eggs smell so bad – has been identified as the compound to break temperature records for high temperature superconductors. High temperature in this case means 190K or -83C, so not exactly tropical.

Superconductors are materials without electrical resistance and their use in maglev trains, motors, electrical grids, computers or sensors would increase output and decrease energy use massively, bringing huge benefits to the world. Standing in the way of that are the fact that most superconductors operate at extremely low temperatures, less than 100C. Temperatures are usually expressed in Kelvins (K) with the lowest point 0K being ‘absolute zero’ – the point at which everything freezes – making zero degrees centigrade equal to 273.16K.

Mikhail Eremets and fellow researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, used a tiny sample of hydrogen sulphide (measuring one-hundredth of a millimetre in width) compressed between the tips of two diamond anvils and measured its electrical resistance as they lowered the temperature towards absolute zero. At extreme pressure (1.8 million times Earth’s atmosphere) the resistance dropped suddenly at near 190K, implying a transition to superconductivity.

The much more distant aim of superconductivity researchers is to find a compound or material that will allow room temperature superconductors to be made, making them available to engineers and electricians much cheaper and without having to create technically challenging operating conditions.