Stem Cells For Dummies
(Wiley, February 2010 )
You or a family member is diagnosed with leukemia, and a bone marrow transplant is part of the treatment plan. As a layperson, you seek to educate yourself about what is ahead. Medical journals are mind-boggling and articles in popular publications are incomplete or worse, unreliable.
If only it could be easier. Enter Stem Cells for Dummies, another in the Wiley Publishing Company’s series of books that demystifies technical or scientific subjects, translating them into useable information for the ordinary person. (“Making Everything Easier” is a slogan of the Dummies series.)
Lawrence Goldstein, Ph.D. and Meg Schneider combine the expertise/experience of a scientist, with the organization and practicality of a journalist. Together, they provide a thorough reference that covers everything from cell and tissue biology, stem cell science, and current medical uses to future considerations. This book endeavors to answer questions arising in all of the above areas, but also honestly states that each new breakthrough in research raises many more questions and challenges. An entire chapter is devoted to ethical and moral questions; other chapters help the reader to understand the role of public policy and research funding.
The authors intend to teach and share knowledge—not show how much they know. This tone is apparent throughout the book. They seek to lead the reader—whether a patient, a concerned relative or a pre-medical student—to a higher level of understanding.
The authors emphasize that it is not necessary to read from beginning to end, but to hone in on the clearly identified section(s) that will answer the reader’s particular questions. Each chapter stands on its own, with certain concepts repeated throughout the book. One example is that embryonic stem cells are derived from three- to five-day-old embryos; another is that intrauterine implantation of a fertilized egg is necessary to create a baby.
Icons in the margin—a signature of Dummies books—serve to highlight concepts or warn the reader about myths related to stem cells. An extensive glossary assists with definitions and is a ready reference. “Cheat sheets” are available online, which provide a very quick synopsis of the major points contained in the book. (Wiley is the publisher of the famous “Cliff’s Notes” known to many students).
What exactly is a stem cell? The authors call them the body’s master cells, that is: “any cell that is not differentiated, can reproduce itself indefinitely, and can give rise to differentiated cells.”
There are two types of stem cells:
· Adult stem cells are found in specific tissues, such as skin, liver, or bone marrow. They can renew different types of cells but only in a particular tissue. There is little objection to the use and study of these adult cells.· Embryonic stem cells are derived from three- to five-day-old embryos created from fertilized eggs that can be used in fertility treatments to start a pregnancy.
Stem cell science is relatively young—about 40 years old. Embryonic stem cells have been studied for only 12 of those years. Ethical and moral issues arise over when such embryos become a person, and the uses/disposition of surplus fertilized eggs. The authors devote an entire chapter to these questions, but do not render opinion regarding such issues as “when personhood begins.” They do provide facts, including various religious viewpoints, for individuals to draw their own conclusions.
Clearly, not everyone has the same questions. The patient mentioned above may want to learn about bone marrow transplants; another may wish to explore the use of stem cells for the treatment of diabetes. Still another may be considering the risks and benefits of travel to another country for treatment where safety and clinical trial standards are looser.
Goldstein and Schneider have taken today’s knowledge and distilled it into 300 pages. They have endeavored to simplify, organize, and explain. Still, this is a highly complex document.
Stem Cells for Dummies is not for the casual reader. One needs to be ready to spend hours of reading and perhaps a fair amount of rereading to truly understand the subject. This is not because the authors have muddled the writing. Rather, to study the subject of stem cells also means the reader is at least considering the vast and endless topics of cell biology, nuclear medicine, physiology, religion, philosophy, public policy, the limitations and promises of scientific research, and the potential for eradication of certain diseases in the future.
Is the book too ambitious? My answer is no. We are only at the beginning, grappling with more questions than answers. While the book appears intended as a guide for someone seeking information answering specific questions, it would certainly provide a solid framework for future understanding and the explosion of knowledge that will surely follow.
Reviewer Diane Brandley is a newspaper columnist and book reviewer whose work has also appeared in Going Places magazine and the Writer Magazine.