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The Boston Globe

Science

Science in Mind

Scientists work to repeat stem cell finding

Three Japanese scientists, in an effort to bring clarity to one of the most controversial and confusing scientific findings in recent memory, have released a detailed protocol explaining step by step how to create stem cells with a simple acid bath. A leading stem cell scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital is working directly with the scientist who led the work to try to repeat the technique.

The surprising report in January by Boston and Japanese scientists that stem cells, with the ability to develop into any cell in the body, could be created with the seemingly straightforward technique sparked a raging and very public debate in the scientific community.

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The doubts have gushed out during the last month, but what can be easy to forget is that it is not unusual for a new technique that upsets conventional knowledge to be carefully and critically vetted.

That process is appropriate and part of how science works; it is just usually hidden from public view.

The ultimate test of the stem-cell-creation technique, as with any other scientific discovery, will be whether it can be repeated by other scientists.

In Boston, several scientists are working to repeat the technique.

I asked Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem-cell scientist at Children’s Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, what his experience has been so far.

Daley said he is working directly with Dr. Charles Vacanti, the anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who was the senior author on the paper describing the technique. Daley said he would like to feed the evidence base and not the rumor mill. Vacanti, he said, has been very helpful and cooperative.

“If the technique is robust and highly reproducible it will be replicated quickly. If there are subtleties and nuances of the technique, then it will take longer. Only time will tell, and this is how science works,” Daley wrote.

“If there is some fatal flaw in the technique, then it will be revealed in time. I am concerned about the rush to use blogging and social media to report early experience with a complex biological experiment. Most scientific experiments take time and many replications to work confidently, and early reporting may reflect a negative bias.”

In an e-mail, Vacanti said that he plans to soon post a protocol for creating the stem cells — called STAP cells — on his laboratory website, and added that the methods posted by his Japanese coauthors are slightly different than the way it is carried out locally.

“I am hoping that what we post will be applicable on a broader scale,” Vacanti wrote.

“The technical details are such that what works well in one person’s hands may not work as well when done by another person. We hope to post a protocol that will be most likely to work well regardless of who is doing it, and be translatable to multiple cell types and sources.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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