What are Stem Cells?


Are the Promises of Stem Cell Therapies Realistic?

The list of medical achievements stem cells could offer seems to be expanding at an incredible pace. The role of stem cells in medicine is already very real, but there is a danger of exaggerating the promise of new medical developments.

What tend to be “over-promised” are not only the potential outcomes of both embryonic and adult stem cell research, but also the time scales that are involved. The basic research needed to develop viable therapeutic options is a lengthy process that may extend over many years and decades. Even after science has moved from basic research to developing medical applications, it still takes many years to thoroughly test those applications and demonstrate that they are safe to prescribe for patients. This is true for all medical treatments, including the development of new drugs, procedures, and medical equipment, and is not specific to the living cell therapies made possible by stem cell research.

There are also many legal and social questions that must be addressed before stem cell-based therapies become clinically available. Legal issues that will affect stem cell applications include how to address intellectual property concerns and how to apply and enforce diverse and sometimes conflicting state and national laws. Social issues include concerns about the destruction of embryos, the distribution of the benefits of the research, and the protection of both physical and privacy interests of egg and sperm donors and clinical research subjects.


Right now, only a few diseases are treatable with stem cell therapies because scientists can only regenerate a few types of tissues. However, the success of the most established stem cell-based therapies—blood and skin transplants—gives hope that someday stem cells will allow scientists to develop therapies for a variety of diseases previously thought to be incurable.
The National Academies produced Understanding Stem Cells, an educational primer designed to provide basic knowledge to facilitate thinking about and understanding the scientific and ethical issues surrounding stem cells.
Source: The National Academies