Talking to the "shocking" scientist who made headlines around the world

As a former journalist I’m always fascinated by what stories the media choses to pick up on. Last week was a prime example. When a study was published showing that scientists in the US and Japan had managed to create a new kind of pluripotent stem cell by “shocking” an ordinary cell with acid, the news took off around the world.

One reason it got such great exposure is that it was new, potentially very exciting and allowed for great attention-grabbing headlines such as “Acid shock reprogrammes cells” and “Breakthrough technique tortures normal cells with acid to create stem cells.” We wrote about this new discovery in our blog earlier this week.

Even when the headlines were sedate and moderate – as in the Boston Globe’s piece – the stories still carried eye catching phrases like “shocking,” “astounding,” even “weird”.

So when our friend and fellow blogger, UC Davis stem cell researcher Dr. Paul Knoepfler, snagged an interview with Dr. Charles Vacanti, an anesthesiologist at Brigham and Women’s in Boston and the senior author of the study, I was naturally curious to hear what he had to say, free of all the media hype, about his work.

It’s a brief but thoughtful conversation that looks at what they did, why they did it and what it could mean for the field as a whole. Dr. Vacanti says:

 “Our primary desire was to shed light on what we felt was a previously unrecognized biologic phenomenon that causes mature cells to revert to stem cells. We believe that this is exactly what happens in the body during attempts to repair any damaged or diseased tissue.” 

Whatever else he did, Dr. Vacanti succeeded in, at least temporarily, shaking up the field of stem cell research. As the debate around the importance of his discovery continues to grow, it will be fascinating to see what the long-term implications turn out to be.

kevin mccormack

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