Illustration of me

Cutting Through the Stem Cell Hype

Sep 13 2021

Recent stem cell advancements have been been exploding across the headlines. If you somehow missed these headlines, the bulk of it is “researchers have figured out how to reprogram adult cell into a state that is nearly indistinguishable from embryonic, pluripotent stem cells.”

Unlike some science stories in the news this isn’t pure hype; it is truly important and has been tested by multiple labs. However, like normal, the media reports are mostly lacking in details and full of loud pronouncements about how this tolls the end of the culture wars and how using embryonic stem cells is now “old-fashioned.”

Like always the truth is more complex. And of course the fabulous ScienceBlogs lays it all out where the media falls flat. PZ Myers, of Pharyngula offers an excellent explanation of the research and it’s implications entitled Stem Cell Breakthrough. Also, the Denialism Blog has a great post about it entitled, Reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent stem cells – what do these new results mean. The blog Framing Science wrote two posts detailing how this is going to effect the future of the stem cell debate: The Next Stage in the Stem Cell Debate Begins! and THE DISCOVERY: What It Means for Framing & News Coverage.

I highly recommend you read these excellent articles, but for those of you who are too busy I offer a few important bullet points:

  • “Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. ” (PZ Myers)
  • This discovery is truly important and has been tested by multiple labs.
  • “What the investigators have accomplished is to discover the reset button for the cell, but the way they currently press it is by hitting it hard with a ball peen hammer.” (PZ Myers)
  • This new method is still somewhat crude and this means that the cells cannot be used for theraputic purposes as these cells have a higher chance of becoming cancerous than embryonic stem cells.
  • This does not spell the end of embryonic stem cells as in order to find a more eloquent way of switching the “reset button” more research using embryonic stem cells will be needed.

Sadly, I think science has already lost the (religiously polarized, scientifically illiterate) American public on this issue. The media has already spin this as a win for the Christian Right and is ignoring that fact that it is really a win for embryonic stem cell researchers — and more importantly that more embryonic stem cell research is needed.

Back to Blog