Busting 4 Myths About Stem Cell Research

Get the facts about a flourishing field

Scientist in lab

Remember stem cell research? In the mid-2000s, it became one of the biggest hot-button topics in medical research.

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The debate has grown quieter since then. But don’t mistake silence for a lack of activity. Stem cell research is alive, well and as full of possibilities as ever.

Below are a few common myths about this research — and the facts that debunk them.

Myth 1: Stem cell research is illegal

Not so. In fact, stem cell research — including hotly debated embryonic stem cell research — is legal and flourishing in the United States.

The National Institutes of Health funded nearly $1.3 billion worth of stem cell research in 2013. And the state of Ohio has contributed more than $25 million to the National Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, a collaboration among Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, Athersys Inc., and The Ohio State University. It’s the fifth-largest stem cell research institute in the country.

Myth 2: All stem cells are the same

When you hear “stem cells,” you probably think of embryonic stem cells. But a lot of research focuses on other types.

Embryonic stem cells are powerful because they are pluripotent. They can develop into any type of cell in your body. But they’re often controversial because of their origin.

“The stream of discoveries has turned into a river that is rushing toward the clinic.”

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Paul DiCorleto

Paul DiCorleto, PhD

Lerner Research Institute

In contrast, almost every organ in your body has its own “adult” stem cells. These cells help grow and maintain your body’s organs as you age. They can’t develop into as many cell types as embryonic stem cells, but they are still promising for patient treatment.

The “tool box” is growing, too. Researchers have successfully used umbilical cord stem cells — taken from a newborn’s cord blood — to treat leukemia and other blood disorders. In 2012, researchers transformed them into other types of cells for the first time. This breakthrough could open the door to treating multiple diseases.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) show promise, too. These adult cells are genetically reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells. Researchers create them directly from a patient’s cells, so they provide an exact genetic match. In the future, iPS cells could provide therapy for everything from Parkinson’s to cardiovascular disease. There’s a hurdle to clear first, though. iPS cells sometimes become cancer cells — making them too dangerous for patient therapy now.

Myth 3: Adult stem cells are better than embryonic stem cells

In truth, researchers invest time and hope in embryonic stem cells for a reason: flexibility. With the right techniques, doctors can direct them to become virtually any type of cell needed for treatment.

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For example, Jan Jensen, PhD, of the Lerner Research Institute has created insulin-producing pancreatic cells in the lab. Now, he is working with Beta02 Technologies to move his research forward. If successful, his work would offer not only a treatment but also a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Adult stem cells are powerful, but they come with more drawbacks. They age with you, so they may accumulate genetic mutations from the environment or the natural aging process.  In addition, adult stem cells can trigger a strong immune response that causes people to reject transplants without drugs to suppress the immune system. Embryonic cells don’t come with that concern.

Myth 4: Stem cells only help patients with Parkinson’s or spinal cord injuries

Research has moved far beyond a handful of diseases. Dr. Jensen’s work on type 1 diabetes is a good example, and other work is even further along.

Cleveland Clinic’s Jeff Cohen, MD, is leading a study that uses stem cells purified from bone marrow to treat patients with multiple sclerosis. And the Multistem system, developed by Cleveland-based Athersys Inc., makes adult stem cells more viable for treating diseases. The product is currently in clinical trials to treat stroke patients.

The list goes on. Stem cells could one day heal ailing hearts, repair damaged muscles, reduce inflammatory bowel disease symptoms and improve transplant outcomes. Researchers are also looking in unexpected places for stem cells — such as discarded hip joints after replacement surgery and in fat cells removed after liposuction.

The stream of discoveries has turned into a river that is rushing toward the clinic.

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Paul DiCorleto, PhD

As Chair of the Lerner Research Institute, Paul DiCorleto, PhD, oversees all laboratory and clinical research at Cleveland Clinic. He is an expert in cardiovascular biology.