Misconceptions About Stem Cells: What You May Not Know Can Hurt Us All

What do you think of when you hear “stem cells?” Like most people, your perception of them may be vague.  This cloudy understanding may even be accompanied by fear and distrust.  Stem cells are cells that have the potential to become a variety of different body cells, ranging from the cells that line our organs to the cells that compose our bones.[1] The two main types of stem cells are embryonic and adult stem cells.  Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become all cell types in the body, whereas adult stem cells are only able to differentiate into certain types.[1]  Both types of stem cells are important in research.  Embryonic stem cells, for instance, can be used to study cancer development, while adult stem cells are used to research the safety and efficacy of new drugs.1 It is the research of embryonic stem cells that has been so controversial and misunderstood by the public.

mariaHuman Stem Cells in Colony” by Ryddagyn is licensed under public domain

On July 20, 2006, when discussing embryonic stem cell research, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh proclaimed “I’m telling you, and I have from the get-go, who is behind this — is the — the militant pro-abortion crowd, because you need abortions to get these.” [2] Actually, that’s incorrect.  A quick google search will reveal that embryonic stem cells do not, in fact, originate from aborted fetuses.  This does not stop Rush, however, from espousing his personal take on grounded scientific research.  Stem cells used for embryonic research originate from four-five day blastocysts, tiny clusters of 20-30 cells that develop into the embryo. The blastocysts used for stem cell research are donated from In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinics, and would be destroyed if not used in research.  So, either way, these cells are not going to become babies.  IVF clinics donate embryonic stem cells for a variety of reasons.  For instance, they could be considered unfit for implantation or the couple could decide to stop pursuing IVF and no longer need the cells.  [3]

Despite the scientific truth, unfortunately, the public and political opinion has largely been fear and distrust toward stem cells.  In particular, conservative, pro-life politicians and commentators like Limbaugh share a fervent hatred towards stem cells, as they insist on believing that stem cell research results from aborted fetuses.  This fear has manifested in legislation that has stymied stem cell research.  In 2001, President Bush introduced a law that cut all federal funding on research on new human stem cell lines.[4]  This means that a lot of groundbreaking research was either completely halted or greatly stifled.  For instance, some labs had to split their resources and lab space in order to keep federally funded and privately funded projects separate.  Furthermore, research was limited to already existing lines of embryonic stem cells.  There were only twenty-one lines, and these lines were not ideal for research, as they were considered to be of low quality and lacking in genetic diversity. [4] This blocked research on gene therapies, anti-cancer drugs and treatments for genetic diseases, and many more valuable projects.

pres-bush-speaks-to-cadetsPres. Bush Speaks to Cadets” by West Point – The U.S. Military Academy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There were other, more unexpected impacts.  California, for instance, created CIRM (the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) in response.  CIRM is California’s state stem cell funding agency, which was created to fund the research that would have otherwise been cut by the Bush legislation.  This drew stem cell researchers into California.  Dr. Jan Nolta, the director of the Stem Cell Program at the UC Davis School of Medicine, was one of these researchers.  “It was what made me finally decide to come back home to California, in 2006-2007, and then we were able to win a “major facilities grant” from CIRM, which created our entire institute and GMP facility. Most of our funding is currently from CIRM.”  This redistribution of research was an interesting result of the ban, and allowed California to become a hotbed for stem cell research while the rest of the nation was starved of funding.  Nolta notes this, “However, for our colleagues around the USA, outside of California, it was devastating. Some labs were lucky enough to move to California, and others had to switch topics of research or close down the labs.” [5]

In 2009, President Obama reversed the Bush legislation, freeing up research on hundreds of lines of embryonic stem cells. [4] Now, researchers are free to study new lines of embryonic stem cells, just as they were before the Bush legislation.  CIRM still remains as the source of funding for valuable research in California, and CIRM-funded research has led to breakthroughs in stem cell research.[5]  However, despite this unexpected silver lining, Bush’s ban still blocked valuable research for years.  This serves as a harsh reminder that misinformation and fear towards scientific research can result in tangible harm.  When large portions of the population possess misunderstandings and fear towards science, vulnerable researchers can be at the mercy of the public and political opinion, often with damaging consequences.  Bush’s banning of stem cell research proves this, and we can only hope that this phenomenon does not repeat itself.

  1. National Institutes of Health (NIH). (n.d.).  Stem Cell Basics I. Retrieved November 2, 2016, from https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm.
  2. Brown, J. (2006).  Limbaugh claimed “you need abortions to get” embryonic stem cells, “we need to re-examine” notion of “scientist” because “science has been so wrong about so many things.” Retrieved November 2, 2016, from http://mediamatters.org/research/2006/07/20/limbaugh-claimed-you-need-abortions-to-get-embr/136211.
  3. California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). (2016.) Myths and Misconceptions about Stem Cell Research. Retrieved November 2, 2016, from https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/myths-and-misconceptions-about-stem-cell-research.
  4. Murugan, V. (2009). Embryonic Stem Cell Research: A Decade of Debate from Bush to Obama.  Retrieved November 2, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2744932/
  5. Nolta, J., PhD. (2016, November 2). Impact of Bush Stem Cell Legislation on Researchers.   [Personal Email Interview]

Banner Credit: “Human Stem Cells in Colony” by Ryddagyn is licensed under public domain