January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Taralyn Tan Ph.D. Curriculum Fellow Harvard Medical

Scientists around the globe want to believe that their work will comprise the “next big thing.” Perhaps they have their sights set on publication. Perhaps they look to get their work featured on the cover of a prestigious scientific journal. Heck, why not aim a bit higher and set one’s sights on the Nobel Prize?

Whatever incentives or goals researchers dangle before themselves, the fact of the matter is that biomedical research is a slow endeavor. A single breakthrough comes at the expense of months and years of failure (or, more euphemistically, “troubleshooting”). Thus for a biomedical researcher, a strong dose of optimism and a belief that, “Hey, we’re really onto something good here!” are not just useful things to have. They are essential to one’s survival.

So, it comes as no surprise to hear that another over-eager scientist waved his arms before a rapt audience and spouted grandiose hyperboles regarding his field of research: stem cells. Earlier this month, Dr. David Warburton of the Saban Research Institute of the Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles, declared, “In about 20 years’ time we will have stem cell banks just like we now have pharmacies with medicines in them. You’ll get a diagnosis for a specific problem and be given stem cells to treat that problem.”

Yet, there is a difference between generating morale in your lab and making bold claims to others, and while I have to give Dr. Warburton credit for his zeal, such public announcements may actually do a disservice to the field, at least in the public eye. If, as a high profile researcher, you want to tell yourself and your research team that you are on the brink of a game-changing medical breakthrough, then fine. But to flood the headlines (even if done so unintentionally) with such empty and impossible promises as “stem cell pharmacies” is to do nothing more than give the general public (who lack formal scientific training) misinformation and unreasonable expectations.

The people who eagerly read about such proclamations by esteemed scientists will be the same people who, 20 years from now, will be balking at the stem cell field when “stem cell pharmacies” are not yet in place on street corners. The argument will be, “Well, 20 years ago, Dr. So-and-So said that by now we will have made X amount of progress, when in fact, we are nowhere near that! Maybe this is a dead end…? Perhaps the government should divert funding elsewhere…?”

For, while stem cells—if they can successfully be used therapeutically—are the perfect cure for a variety of ailments, there is still a long way to go before we see such treatments being routinely used. As for stem cell “pharmacies,” well, that doesn’t really make much sense at all. Stem cell therapy requires an administration of the specifically primed cells to the area of tissue damage. (Thus, unless these “pharmacists” will plunge a needle into your cardiac tissue, you’ll be out of luck.)

Yet, does the fact that we should not hold our breath counting down to these pharmacies in 20 years at all detract from the promise that the field holds? Not at all. As scientists and people who possess an understanding of the timescale required to overcome the myriad obstacles still facing stem cell researchers, we know that even if no new therapies hit the clinics in the next five, ten, twenty years, we are making progress towards those goals.

So perhaps instead of declaring to the world that the era of stem cell miracles is nearly upon us, scientists in the field should show some restraint when making public comments. It would far better serve the future of the stem cell field if researchers communicated with the general public in realistic terms. If researchers take this circumspect approach to public announcements, then there will be no need to virulently defend the validity of their work when (not if) there are setbacks. We all know that in biomedical research, setbacks are the rule, not the exception, so it’s best to be prepared.

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