The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Winter 2018

"Public Perception of Stem Cells" by Ananth Panchamukhi


In the last few decades, stem cell research has become widely popular not only in the scientific community but also among the general public. First isolated from mice embryos over thirty years ago, these cells hold tremendous potential in the world of medicine because of their ability to grow into many cell types [1]. This ability is especially promising in areas of the body unable to heal naturally (such as central nervous tissue of the spinal cord or brain) because the tissue can be repaired through replacement of damaged cells. As a result, stem cells are often implicated in traditionally incurable conditions such as paraplegia or Alzheimer’s [2]. In one 2017 study at the University of Tel Aviv, for example, 42% of mice with completely severed spinal cords “regained fine motor control, coordination, and walking pattern” after insertion of human oral mucosa (taken from the mouth lining) stem cells at the cut site, compared to complete paralysis in the control group [3].

The potential benefits of stem cell research aren’t limited to those who are injured. A quick glance at reveals a variety of stem cell studies in areas as diverse as HIV, cancer, and heart disease. In fact, some applications go beyond curing disease or disability. For example, stem cells may be able to prolong the duration and quality of life for healthy individuals. A recent study from Albert Einstein Medical College found that the insertion of genetically engineered hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of mice increased their lifespan by about 10% and decreased the rate of aging overall [4].

In spite of strides in research seen in studies like these, science has not yet caught up with the wild expectations laid out for consumers in media. In fact, the public is often led to believe falsehoods about the current capabilities of the work. In popular culture, stem cells often appear as a quick panacea for maladies; for example, they are used as a deux ex machina to completely cure Family Guy’s Peter Griffin of a debilitating stroke in minutes. Compare this with reality, where the most cutting-edge stem cell research into strokes hopes for signs of motor improvement in 12 months [5,6].

Family guy

Fig. 1. Family Guy Stem Cell Clinic Before and After Scene

Additionally, news media coverage about the availability of stem cell treatments is highly skewed. According to one study from the University of Alberta, almost 70% of stories mentioning a time frame for new stem cell treatments claim that they will be available to the public in 10 years or less, when, in reality, these treatments would have to undergo at least 10 more years of FDA testing after in situ success occurs before they can begin to be introduced in hospitals [7].  

While high public expectation for stem cell treatments may seem to translate well into support for research, inflated public opinion regarding the current capabilities of stem cells can have serious negative consequences as well. The lack of government approved public access to these overhyped treatments has encouraged unlicensed stem cell clinics to crop up around the country claiming to offer miracle treatments to customers. Some of these “treatments” have caused permanent damage to individuals, including three who experienced severe vision loss and even blindness after having fat stem cells injected into their eyes in a “clinical trial.” [8]. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. remarked about these type of clinics, “The FDA will not allow deceitful actors to take advantage of vulnerable patients by purporting to have treatments or cures for serious diseases without any proof that they actually work” [9]. While these clinics continue operating illegally, however, public perception will continue to clash dangerously with the reality of science.

On the other side of the spectrum, one barrier among opponents of stem cell research and public understanding is a heated debate over whether destroying human blastocysts to obtain embryonic stem cells is ethical. Opponents of using stem cells equate harvesting embryonic stem cells to murder because of the potential for a blastocyst to become a fetus, while supporters of stem cell research argue the blastocysts are simply a collection of cells that is not human yet [10]. Advances in policy and science have somewhat eased the debate, as it has already become legal to experiment on unused embryos from in vitro fertilization and non-embryonic types of stem cells are being discovered as viable experimental alternatives. One of the most prominent non-embryonic types that have shown success in experiment are induced pluripotent stem cells, which are normal adult cells altered to act as stem cells. However, even these cells have their own potential ethical complications, as many scientists are working on developing embryonic stem cell layers in induced pluripotent stem cells, which would give them the ability to become human embryos [11,12]. In any case, the stigma associated with stem cells will prevent people from learning about new advancements in the field and may preclude groups from utilizing them. Especially as stem cells move from the laboratory to the hospital, this debate is sure to reignite and the ethical issues will remain a barrier to both stem cell treatments and research.

Stem cells will surely continue to produce innovations that greatly impact our society’s health and quality of life. Undoubtedly, public perception of stem-cell technology will diversify as much as the research will. Many barriers currently exist to public understanding of stem cells among both supporters and opponents. In the coming decades, stem cells may give us a future free of traditionally untreatable diseases and increase the quality and duration of our lives. While a world of going to the corner drugstore for a new limb or Alzheimer’s cure remains only in our imaginations at present, stem cells bring us closer to that reality with every culture.


[1] NIH Stem Cell Information Home Page. 2016. In Stem Cell Information. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[2] Huebner, E. A., & Strittmatter, S. M. 2009. “Axon Regeneration in the Peripheral and Central Nervous Systems.” Results and Problems in Cell Differentiation, no. 48, 339–351.

[3] Ganz J., Shor E., Guo S., Sheinin A., Arie I., Michaelevski I., Pitaru S., Offen D. and Levenberg  S. 2017. Implantation of 3D Constructs Embedded with Oral Mucosa-     Derived Cells  Induces Functional Recovery in Rats with Complete Spinal Cord   Transection. Front.     Neurosci. 11:589. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2017.00589

[4] Zhang, Yalin, Kim, Min Soo, Jia, Baosen, Yan, Jingqi, Zuniga-Hertz, Juan Pablo, Han, Cheng &  Dongsheng Cai. 2017. “Hypothalamic stem cells control ageing speed partly through       exosomal miRNAs.” Nature volume 548, pages 52–57 doi:10.1038/nature23282    

[5] Wood, Matt. 2017. “Clinical trial uses stem cells to help patients recover from stroke.”    to-help-patients-recover-from-stroke

[6] Family Guy. “McStroke.” Season 6 Episode 8. Directed by Brian Iles. Written by Seth McFarlane. Fox. January 13, 2008.       episode-608-a%C2%80%C2%93-mcstroke/

[7] "Media portray unrealistic timelines for stem cell therapies." 2015. University of Alberta. ScienceDaily.

[8] Sifferlin, Alexandra. 2017. “FDA Cracks Down on Stem Cell Clinics But Patients Are Still at  Risk.” TIME.

[9] “FDA acts to remove unproven, potentially harmful treatment used in ‘stem cell’ centers targeting vulnerable patients.” 2017. US Food and Drug Administration. 

[10] Hyun, Insoo. “Stem Cells.” 2016. The Hastings Center.   

[11] “The Stem Cell Debate: Is it Over?” Genetics Learning Center. University of Utah.       

[12] Brind'Amour, Katherine. 2009. “Ethics and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells.” Arizona State University. The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.      induced-pluripotent-stem-cells


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