Stem Cells in the Media: From Promise to Success

Rebecca Marton

Rebecca Marton, University of Notre Dame

Rebecca Marton, University of Notre Dame

Rebecca is a recent graduate of The University of Notre Dame where she majored in biological sciences. She spent the summer traveling in Eastern Europe and teaching in a science-based camp for underprivileged youth in Lawrence, MA. In the fall, she will begin her Ph.D. in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University and ultimately plans to pursue a career in academic research.

Those of us that are familiar with the field of stem cell biology are notably excited about the potential of stem cells to change the way we practice medicine today, and improve human health in significant and far-reaching ways. However, before my experience as a Student Ambassador, I like many others, was talking about stem cells while still using the caveats, “promise” and “potential” when describing the science.

Now after my experience as a member of the Student Ambassador program at the Second Adult Stem Cell Conference at The Vatican in Rome, my perception of stem cell biology has shifted. Not only is stem cell therapy an interesting subject offering the possibility of future usefulness, but these very therapies (even the ones that may seem like science fiction), are on their way to becoming viable medical treatments today.

Despite the many achievements in stem cell biology, the media still emphasizes the potential of stem cell research instead of its actual accomplishments. A shift in focus away from the “p” words (promise, possibility, and potential) to focus on the successes of stem cell biology will better represent the current state of stem cell research and inspire future progress. Hard data, clinical trial successes and patient success stories will all help change the way that the public thinks about adult stem cell research and development.

My passion for stem cell biology developed from my fascination with the study of life. I had always enjoyed learning about how the human body works, and as a result of my studies, I knew generally about the concept of populations of cells residing in adult tissues that retain the ability to replicate and replace cells in response to injury and aging. While I had the notion that these processes could be harnessed to improve human health, these types of applications seemed futuristic and unattainable. Therefore, I wasn’t sure about what I would hear differently when I attended the Second Adult Stem Cell Conference last year.

With these expectations, one can imagine my surprise when I attended the Conference and began to hear testimonials from patients whose lives had already been changed by treatments derived from adult stem cells! I witnessed case after case in which the knowledge gained in the field had been successfully applied to help those for whom more traditional forms of medicine had been unsuccessful. My experience as a Student Ambassador changed my view of stem cell biology from conceptual and futuristic, to a thriving, tangible science that was making a true impact on human health and wellness. For example, I vividly remember the story of a patient with multiple sclerosis whose condition was drastically improved as the result of stem cell therapy. This patient’s story and so many others inspired me to continue an inquest at home into the improvements that stem cell biology is currently making in healthcare.

In my investigations, I was surprised to learn that there were more than 1,400 clinical trials relating to stem cells currently being conducted in the U.S. according to, the National Institutes of Health’s database. The treatments under study address ailments as varied as diabetes and spinal cord injury. Encouragingly, some therapies are already in use, including the transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells to treat blood cancers. Researchers are continuously investigating new conditions that can be improved through the application of stem cell biology, and time will only tell the full extent to which this work can be applied to improve the human condition.

It is no surprise to see that much of the media attention surrounding stem cell biology focuses on the future potential of the field, and their “promise,” “possibilities,” and “potential.” Surely there is truth in these headlines in that there is still much progress left to be made. In fact the very nature of scientific inquest is that one opened door leads to ten more doors that have yet to be unlocked. However, the use of the terms “potential” or “promise” can at some point become detrimental. These words imply that stem cell research is not at a level yet that can really influence people’s lives. As was so clearly demonstrated at the Second International Adult Stem Cell Conference, this is far from being the case.

Future media efforts aimed towards promoting stem cell research would benefit from a greater focus on the accomplishments of stem cell research rather than on just the future possibilities of the field. Research is already improving human health, and these advancements deserve to be recognized. The best way to stimulate the future investment of time and energy is to emphasize that which has already been achieved through previous efforts. The successes highlighted at the Conference changed my view of stem cell biology from an interesting, yet distant topic, to a viable therapeutic strategy being used to treat actual disease. The recognition of these practical successes will continue to encourage future progress in the field.