I’ve heard many different adjectives used to frame discussions of stem cells: powerful, promising, controversial, cutting edge, rejuvenating, mysterious, sexy, to name but a few. All of these descriptors are used in various ways to promote particular opinions, beliefs or imagery of stem cells and many of them, I would argue, are vastly overused and in some cases, quite misleading.
While sitting in the morning session at the Understanding Stem Cell Controversies course currently taking place in Calgary, I was introduced to a new adjective in the stem cell lexicon — branded (and, oddly enough, this descriptor was used by two presenters, Brian Kwon and Timothy Caulfield). Can a word, typically attached to such concepts as corporate identity and customer loyalty, be used in relation to the broad field of stem cells? Of course it can. There may not be a logo to solidify that brand, but the adjectives I listed are, in essence, the brand of stem cells.
At the heart of this morning’s discussions was the use (or misuse) of the stem cell brand not just to sell stem cell products such as face creams and spa treatments, but also to instil a belief that stem cell therapies are a routinely available and the best choice to be made in treating otherwise incurable injuries or disease. As an orthopaedic surgeon, Brian Kwon noted that “every one of my patients asks about stem cell treatment”.
In fact, Kwon’s current research found that the number of spinal cord injury patients who would choose a stem cell treatment outnumbers those who would choose a conventional drug therapy (assuming that both treatment options exist). Think about it. A spinal cord stem cell treatment would be highly invasive, requiring a major operation, exposure of the spinal cord, injection of a needle into the spinal cord itself and possibly a prolonged course of immunosuppressants. Conventional drug therapies are typically administered either orally or intravenously.
Kwon further noted that a 2009 sample of media reports about potential treatments for spinal cord injury all used the term “stem cell” as part of the news story, even when the treatment in question had nothing to do with stem cells whatsoever. See more of Kwon’s presentation:
Since stem cells have thus far resisted any attempt to define ownership, the brand also defies any single entity’s attempt to manage it. For the scientific community, this is troubling. Timothy Caulfield spoke about a current trend to shift the stem cell brand identity from a scientific and clinical framework to the realm of “alternative medicine”. Such a shift would negate the authority of scientists in their attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of stem cell tourism by distancing them from public discussions on the issue.
— Lisa Willemse, SCN Director of Communications
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