Finding the positive in the hype about stem cells

Author: Nick Dragojlovic, 12/20/12

“Stem Cells Make Aging Mice Young Again” – ABC News 

“’Factor X’ — Have we finally found the fountain of youth?” – Fox News 

“Stem cells, the secret to eternal youth?” –

Headlines like these are all too common and underscore how the news media’s coverage of regenerative medicine tends to focus on the field’s potential to cure age-related diseases and, as a result, bestow us with longer and healthier lives. This type of sensationalism can’t simply be attributed to journalistic malpractice, though, since it’s often driven by the way in which scientists promote their own research, as well as the tendency for scientific publications to focus almost exclusively on the potential benefits of the work they present.

For example, Bruce Péault, a researcher affiliated with the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM), recently told STV news that “[t]he average lifespan of the human being should be 130 years – that’s what we’re working towards” when discussing his work on vascular regeneration. Unsurprisingly, the headline for the thousand-word story on the SCRM’s activities was: “World leading laboratory aims to make life expectancy of 130 a normality.”

Many health researchers worry that hyping stem cells in this way encourages potentially harmful health behaviours, such as the demand for unproven stem cell therapies. They also worry that encouraging inflated expectations will ultimately undermine the public’s trust in scientists when the arrival of the promised cures for age-related diseases is inevitably delayed and the disillusionment phase of the Gartner “hype cycle” sets in. These are real concerns, and must be kept in mind by scientists engaged in public outreach.

In contrast to the pervasive focus on the potential negative effects of hype, though, in this post I propose to consider whether it might also have positive side effects. I should stress that what follows is purely speculative, since I’m not aware of any research that investigates the question directly, but it’s worth thinking about.

My starting point is the concept of “subjective life expectancy” (SLE), which refers to how long individuals estimate they have left to live. Most work on SLE focuses on the drivers of longevity expectations, but a few studies have explored the effects of SLE on health behaviour and found that, on balance, people with higher SLE tend to follow healthier lifestyles. Greater SLE, for example, has been linked to decreased tobacco use, a healthier diet, greater adherence to an exercise program, less risky sexual behaviour, and greater engagement in diabetes management practices. Researchers have explained these findings in terms of temporal horizons. That is, people who feel that their time is limited tend to focus on the present and neglect to engage in behaviours – such as regular exercise – that have long-term benefits rather than immediate payoffs.

The key question, then, is what effect (if any) newspaper headlines touting stem cells as the “fountain of youth” and predictions of greatly extended lifespans are having on the public’s subjective life expectancy estimates. I’m not aware of any research that has investigated this question directly, but existing work suggests that many find the possibility of a significant extension of the human lifespan in the near future to be plausible. An Australian study, for example, found that over 70% of respondents believed that the prospect of life extension sounded realistic, and in a recent Stem Cell Network-funded survey of Canadian adults, Edna Einsiedel and I found that 47% of respondents agreed that an increase of average life expectancy in Canada to 120 years by 2050 was possible.

In short, members of the public appear to be surprisingly open to the possibility that biomedicine may be able to dramatically increase our lifespans in the near future. It’s entirely possible, then, that the hype surrounding stem cells may lead to an overall increase in people’s subjective life expectancy. If so, this might lead people to adopt healthier lifestyles than they might otherwise have, which would represent a net health benefit regardless of whether the hyper-optimistic predictions about the impact of regenerative medicine pan out.

I should conclude, though, by re-iterating that this is a highly speculative argument. Inflated expectations could just as easily create a moral hazard situation in which people figure that they can keep smoking, for example, because they’ll be able to order a new set of lungs down the line. If the hype encourages people to use untested stem cell therapies, moreover, its negative effects on individuals could far outweigh any positive side effects. My point, though, is that this is ultimately an empirical question, and that we should not assume that the effects of stem cell hype on individuals’ health behaviour are exclusively negative.

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Nick Dragojlovic
Nick Dragojlovic is a health services researcher at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. He has previously held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Calgary and at UBC, and has received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. He holds a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD from UBC. Nick is particularly interested in the use of alternative finance mechanisms to support scientific research, and covers the topic on his blog: Funded Science
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4 Responses

  1. Paul Knoepfler says:

    Maybe in 10 or 20 years stem cells might be able to influence life expectancy, but the current hype is not helpful in any way I can imagine. This article is really lousy.

  2. Nick Dragojlovic says:

    Thanks for commenting, Paul. I’m certainly not arguing that stem cell therapies can actually have an effect on life expectancy today or, indeed, ever. My point is simply that the *expectation* that they might someday increase longevity might have a positive side effect on people’s health behavior. As I note, though, the overall negative effects of hype may well (and I expect probably would) outweigh any positive effect even if it does exist.

  3. Paul Knoepfler says:

    Sorry for being way overly harsh in that previous comment. The title of the piece is what gets me I guess. But then I should be open to outside the box thinking.

    My take is actually the opposite of yours. The idea (even if mostly hype) that medicine might help people live longer seems likely to make people not take as good care of themselves. They’ll be counting on some medical miracle to rescue them. I’d imagine people would behave worse not better!

  4. Nick Dragojlovic says:

    Hi Paul. I agree that that’s definitely a likely response, but I’d expect people’s reactions to increased longevity expectations would vary depending on their underlying orientations. To use an analogy: If you’re already a saver, and you start thinking you might live longer than expected, you’ll probably increase your savings to account for the additional years of retirement. If you’re not a saver, on the other hand, you might just decide that you’ll be able to work longer and need to save even less than you are now. Similarly, if you already value your long-term health, this might reinforce that attitude, but might have the opposite effect otherwise. I’m not sure which response would be most prevalent (though I imagine it would probably depend on audience characteristics), but that’s why I think it would be useful to look at this empirically.


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