It seems like a new breakthrough in stem cell research is announced almost every day. Even though stem cells are a very exciting and promising area of research, it’s not easy to separate fact from stem cell science fiction. Here are two common stem cell myths ... busted!

Myth #1: We can get stem cells from blood and skin, so embryonic stem cells aren’t needed.

Busted: Stem cells are found in just about every tissue of the human body, but they are different from embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Most stem cell scientists think that both embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells are important to learn about disease and develop treatments.

Non-embryonic stem cells have tissue-specific developmental potential. This means that neural stem cells make mature brain cells, skin stem cells make mature skin cells, and blood stem cells make mature red and white blood cells. These tissue-specific stem cells have the critical job of maintaining and repairing your organs throughout your life, and are called adult stem cells.

Did You Know?
Blood stem cells were the first stem cells to be discovered, by Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch in Toronto, Canada, in 1961.

Did You Know?
An excellent source of blood stem cells is umbilical cord blood, since it poses no risks to newborns or mothers to collect it, and it is usually discarded after birth.

In contrast to adult stem cells, ESCs can develop into any cell type of the body! ESCs can also grow indefinitely in the lab, while adult stem cells cannot. Scientists around the world are figuring out how to turn ESCs into different kinds of specialized cells that are suitable for replacing damaged tissue. Research using ESCs is also very controversial, since they are obtained from donated embryos that have been frozen at IVF (in vitro fertilization) clinics at a very early stage of development (about five days).

Did You Know?
Scientists in Canada must obtain permission to use any human cells in research, including early embryos. This “informed consent” carries the ethical responsibility to tell the person (or person(s) responsible for the cell source) about the risks and benefits of cell donation, and exactly how the cells will be used.

Myth #2: Stem cells can cure anything!

Busted: Well established treatments involving stem cells include: 1) blood and bone marrow transplants to treat blood disorders such as leukemia, and 2) skin grafting for burn victims. Most other stem cell therapies are still experimental and not proven safe and effective. It is important to remember that careful, responsible research takes a long time, and organizations like Health Canada have to make sure that treatments are safe and effective. The new phenomenon of “stem cell tourism”, where people travel to countries with looser regulation for unproven stem cell treatments, is pretty risky!

Did You Know?
A group of Canadian scientists and bioethicists have written a Stem Cell Charter, which advocates responsible stem cell research and development.

For more information about stem cell research and ethics, the Canadian Stem Cell Network and the International Society for Stem Cell Research have plenty of great information on their websites:

http://www.stemcellnetwork.ca/index.php?page=for-the-public&hl=eng

http://www.isscr.org/public/index.

For more information about approved versus experimental stem cell treatments:

http://www.isscr.org/clinical_trans/pdfs/ISSCRPatientHandbook.pdf

For an excellent short film about human stem cell basics:

http://www.eurostemcell.org/films/a-stem-cell-story/English

To see the Stem Cell Charter, as well as videos from prominent Canadian stem cell scientists about their work and their motivation:

http://www.stemcellfoundation.ca/

Learn more about Stem Cells on our Stem Cells Theme Page!

References:

http://www.stemcellnetwork.ca/index.php?page=for-the-public&hl=eng

http://www.isscr.org/public/index.htm

Article first published on March 22, 2010.

Krysta Levac

After an undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, I earned a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University in 2001. I spent 7 years as a post-doctoral fellow and research associate in stem cell biology at Robarts Research Institute at Western University in London, ON. I currently enjoy science writing, Let's Talk Science outreach, and volunteering at my son's school. I love sharing my passion for science with others, especially children and youth. I am also a bookworm, a yogi, a quilter, a Lego builder and an occasional "ninja spy" with my son.



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