‘The Stem Cell Challenge’ by Lanza and Rosenthal

A PROMPT Analysis of ‘The Stem Cell Challenge’ by Lanza and Rosenthal (Scientific American 2004)¹

Human embryonic stem cells [Nissim Benvenisty - Russo E. (2005)]
Human embryonic stem cells [Nissim Benvenisty – Russo E. (2005)]

Given that Lanza and Rosenthal are both in the stem cell research business, and that they finish the article on an upbeat tone, they’ve produced an article which seems to me to be reasonably balanced in tone – an overview of many potential avenues for research and possible treatment, with the significant caveats (mostly scientific but also ethical) associated with most, if not all of them.

It’s clear that the whole field is at an, ahem, embryonic stage.  It’s like the first days of a new Yukon gold rush – the sharp-eyed can see vistas of potential opening up, but nobody has charted or excavated beyond relatively superficial levels.  The possibilities are thrilling, but bewildering – I suspect not just to me as a lay-reader but sometimes to the scientists themselves!  So many ways that we might obtain stem cells, create stem cells, modify stem cells – so many possible medical applications, but so many hurdles, failures, such a high failure to success rate at this early stage…

Nerve cells [Nissim Benvenisty - Russo E. (2005)]
Nerve cells [Nissim Benvenisty – Russo E. (2005)]

I don’t have a sharply-defined ethical stance on the whole issue.  I don’t have a neat soundbite answer to it all.  I’m excited but confused.  The one certainty is that this research is going to continue.  Once the world knows that there’s gold in the Yukon, nothing can stop them digging.

Presentation

The article is presented to a high professional level. Highly complex topics have been assembled and summarised in a way that is accessible to a scientifically literate general reader, in a way that strikes a good balance between substantial content and general intelligibility.

Relevance

The article succeeds in answering the question presented in its subtitle: ‘What hurdles stand between the promise of human stem cell therapies and real treatments in the clinic?’ It summarises a wide range of potential stem cell techniques and applications, but states the nature and magnitude of the obstacles facing each avenue of research at time of writing.

Objectivity

Debatable. Both authors are stem cell scientists, and it is clearly in their interests to accentuate the positive when positing the future of their field of work. Nevertheless I felt that their discussion of every aspect of research has been accompanied by a clear assessment of the problems facing it at time of writing. At no point does this read like a puff-piece of PR advocacy. It could be argued that the writers focus mainly on the scientific aspects of the field, with less attention being given to the ethical issues – but I feel that they have correctly kept more emphasis on the science – scientists must present the hard facts to society at large, to allow society to make as scientifically informed an assessment of the ethical issues as possible.

Method

The article gives the impression of being a fair and wide-reaching assessment of the state of stem cell research at time of writing, but the lay reader does have to invest a measure of faith in the writers. There is no explanation of the methodical means by which the authors have collated a great deal of primary data, and with this article alone to depend on, the reader does have to take a substantial amount on trust. More specific citations to the primary publications would have been very welcome. This is, however, a secondary article, with less stringent requirements for explanations of methodology than would be the case in a primary scientific paper.

Provenance

The article’s provenance is basically clear but could do with more detailed references. A box titled ‘The Authors’ clearly identifies the authors, their academic positions and their fields of work, and the end of the article gives links to associated publications written by them. A large number of references are made in the body of the article to the work of other scientists at various research institutions, but the article could do with specific referencing of the primary research published by these other scientists.

Timeliness

Not good by 2013. This is clearly a dynamic and fast-moving field, with vast fortunes being invested in getting rapid results, and nine years is much too long for this article to be of use as anything more than a general overview. Any or all of the information in the article could have been refuted, revised, disputed or abandoned altogether by now.

¹Lanza, R. and Rosenthal, N. (2004). ‘The Stem Cell Challenge’, Scientific American June 1 2004: 93-99

Article for OU Module SDK125 © Andrew Murray 2013

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