Vacanti to Strike Back?

Dana Goodyear “The Stress Test”


At the end of July, Vacanti invited me to Boston. Because of the embarrassment around STAP, he had taken a sabbatical from his chairmanship, and would soon retire from his position. His lab would eventually run out of money, and then close. But his faith in the basic principles of STAP was unshakable. “I will go to my grave still being absolutely certain that it’s correct,” he said.

For all his conviction, Vacanti looked drawn. His gray hair was a close-shaved stubble, and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and khakis. A few weeks earlier, he had undergone a stress test―“It’s difficult to differentiate chest pain from anxiety from chest pain from angina.” (He had a triple bypass in 1996.) He regretted that the protocol as published had been so spare, and that the implications had been made to sound so sweeping. He said, “The point of the paper was that with any severe, sub-lethal stress―lethal enough that it kills, say, seventy or eighty per cent of the cells―the surviving ones will convert. It came out sounding like ‘Acid treatment causes conversion.’ But the point was that the harsh environment was supposed to mimic the chemical environment that you have in normal injury and wound healing.”

In the year since the papers’ retraction, he and Kojima had tweaked the procedure, making small adjustments to the media and returning to the original chemical stimulus, ATP, which also fuelled the cells, instead of the hydrochloric acid indicated in the publications. For months, they had tried to make a teratoma, the first major step to indicating pluripotency.

Now we walked over to Vacanti’s lab to see the results. He wasn’t optimistic. Before my arrival, he told me, he had called an emergency phone meeting with Kojima and his brother Martin. “I said, ‘We have to have something to demonstrate that this is indeed real or we’re going to look really stupid.’ ” As it happened, he said, just a few days before, he had seen the best-looking spheres in many months. They had tested positive for the embryonic-stem-cell markers Oct4 and Nanog, calculated by a machine that is not subject to the vagaries of auto-fluorescence. He had broken the spheres apart and placed the cells in a medium that encouraged the growth of neurons. The new plan was to test them for a protein called nestin, which, he said, would show that a mature skin cell had been transformed into a neural stem cell―taken back down to the root and up another branch.

Vacanti’s lab was largely empty, except on the days when an artist collaborator of his came in to work on a replica of van Gogh’s ear, made from a descendant’s DNA and a mold of the actual appendage. Kojima, the stalwart, was at his desk. On the outer wall to his office was a poster charting the developmental pathways of cells; at the center, over the most powerful cell, a lab worker in the Obokata days had pasted a sign that said “STAP.” Scattered around the lab were several pipette calibrators bearing the name “Haruko.”

Compact and taciturn, Kojima looked up and said “Good data” before saying hello. The nestin levels*2 were fifty to sixty times as high as the last time he had checked. “Ha!” Vacanti said, jumping up and down and cheering.

“It’s only one sample,” Kojima said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Vacanti replied cheerfully. “One’s good for me.”

See also

Paul Knoepfler*3 “Finally, Vacanti’s side of STAP cell implosion”
共同通信「米国でも「STAP細胞はあります!」 共著者バカンティ氏、研究続ける 「正しいと確信したまま墓場に」」