November 30, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The cheating death excitation

How does one go about cheating death? Who doesn’t want to cheat death?

I know I certainly do.

Cheating death
Cheating death.

Can stem cells help many people in the immediate future to escape death (pictured here in personified form as Death t from Wikipedia)?

Recent headlines on new stem cell-related clinical developments would make you think so and they go a step further to indicate that such miracles are just around the corner.

We are all susceptible to such hype.

When it was early days after my diagnosis with prostate cancer in 2009 one of the many doctors that I saw said something that has really stuck with me.

“Our goal is to help you die of something else besides prostate cancer!”

What this doctor said is perfectly right as a goal, but it stunned me a bit at the time.

I don’t want to die of prostate cancer, but I don’t really want to die of anything. However, I will be dying of something eventually whether it is that or something else.

Something will eventually get you too.

It’s just not fun to think about.

Instead it’s a lot more enjoyable and exciting to imagine escaping death through some cutting edge, sci-fi-ish technology like stem cells.

In the last few weeks there’ve been an unusually large number of papers and newspaper headlines about stem cell clinical developments and as much as I hate to say it as an advocate for the stem cell field, many of these cases have been hyped.

The reporters, their headlines and in some cases even some of those involved in the research seemingly would like you to think that cures for all kinds of bad things are about to happen tomorrow. These kinds of pieces often also tend to ignore the often equally important work of scientific competitors as well, which is surely not a good thing.

It can be difficult to sort through to discern what is real hope versus hype and to see the bigger picture where there are many groups doing great things.

There are some words and phrases that tend to crop up that can be clues to what is being hyped in the stem cell headlines: “miraculous”, “cure”,” breakthrough”, and assorted comparisons to once-in-a-century or -millennium kind of events such as landing on a man on the moon or the development of antibiotics. If you see those breathless kind of words, paradoxically you should be less excited and more skeptical.

Stem cell technology will be that important overall and it will make such humanity-changing events come to pass, but we aren’t there yet. It’ll probably take another decade or two to really get closer to being a reality. Raising expectations sky high right now with over-the-top claims and headlines is not helpful to progress. At the same time being an advocate for this work and drumming up interest is important, especially in these days of minimal funding. The key is balance.

So I’d say get excited and talk about the cool stem cell work going on, but also do your homework, give credit to competitors where credit is due, temper your statements a bit, and keep plugging away on the research.

Note: the title of this post was inspired by the titles of Big Bang Theory episodes.

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