by Michelle Ly
I was having my bathroom renovated a few months ago and got into a discussion with my contractor about work. I mentioned that I had done some work with the BC Cancer Research Centre and other biomedical research institutes. His comment was, “Cancer research? So do you do any stem cell work? That's scary stuff eh?”
I admit, I had never thought of stem cells as being scary. To me, stem cells are still a nebulous sort of work-in-progress – the road to possibilities, sometimes lined with controversy over ethics or funding, but scary? Never. But to my contractor, it was that same seemingly limitless potential that was scary. It led me to wonder, what did other people think of stem cells? This was the informal, open-ended question that I put out to readers of my personal blog and social networking sites.
Most people, regardless of their background or occupation, were enthusiastic about the potential for stem cells to propel science and research in new directions. A nutritionist wrote: “Stem cells are a vital component to modern health sciences research. The ability to transform these cells to fit our needs are instrumental in the development of new treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's where there is no hope of a conventional cure.” This sentiment was echoed by many other posters who cited potential cures and new therapies as reasons for pursuing stem cell research.
A commenter from the US who is interested in law and ethics remarked: “... economically – it did a LOT of things for my university (UW-Madison) and surrounding communities where the first line of human embryonic stem cells were discovered. […] We have a huge amount of development in our biosciences departments because of it, which creates a lot of job and investments in the local area.”
The need for continued research was also emphasized. Kate, a graduate student with a background in chemistry writes: “Like so many things in science, stem cells are not completely understood. In fact, this is an understatement. What we actually know about stem cells - how they develop, what they do, where they come from - only scrapes the surface.” One post-doc felt that there was perhaps too much hype around stem cells. In her view, they represent potential for the development of future therapeutic and research techniques, but they are not the cure-all some people might think. Indeed, recent commentary in the New York Times on the value of basic science) echoed these sentiments.
As a relatively new avenue of research, several people mentioned the need for clear, scientifically sound regulations, both to ensure the progress of science and the avoidance of a moral slippery slope. A few readers questioned the many “stem cell clinics” offering untested treatments for diseases and aesthetics, with one wondering, “How can I choose what's best for myself when the experts seems to be constantly disagreeing?” The web site, www.closerlookatstemcells.org, published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research is an excellent resource for those with questions about stem cell treatments.
The take-home message seemed to be hope, tinged with caution. Like a lot of basic science, there is potential for greatness once underlying mechanisms are understood, research techniques improved, and new strategies devised. I invite readers here to submit their thoughts – What do you think of stem cells?