“STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS” by Scottish Documentary Institute
“STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS” is an informative and engaging documentary recently distributed by the Scottish Documentary Institute. It’s a very useful film to see if you want to learn more about the history of stem cells, and where the clinical, cutting-edge technology is at currently. The documentary gives an overview of international stem cell history, starting with the discovery of stem cells and ending with the newest members of the ever-growing stem cell family. To summarize such a wealth of research, research that has been going on for over half a century, the film tells the story of a few key stem cell discoveries and applications. Each story is described through interviews with stem cell researchers who were directly involved or appeared on the scene later but can knowledgably discuss the event’s impact. The first group of stories is related to adult stem cells (although this is not explicitly stated or explained): the discovery of stem cells during WWII, the amazing rescue of two boys in the early 1980s using stem cell-based skin grafts, and the present-day treatment of blind patients in a stem cell clinic in India. The final group of stories is related to pluripotent stem cells: the discovery of embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in mice in 1981 by Martin Evans (it was a treat to see Evans, who won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for the research he discusses in the film!) and of human ESCs (hESCs) in 1998 by Jamie Thomson, present-day use of hESCs to treat patients with retinal disorders in London (although I shuddered a little when Pete Coffee handled a flask of cells without gloves on!), and the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) by Shinya Yamanaka in 2006.
The science presented in the film is well-explained and even though the focus of the film is on medical breakthroughs accomplished using stem cells, the scientists interviewed do not try to over-hype current stem cell applications. Most helpful in making the technical information accessible are several short, accurate, and intriguing animations (made by Cameron Duguid). During a segment on Yamanaka’s research, one of these animations is particularly useful in explaining how chromatin regulation of gene expression is different in different types of tissues. However, it is repeatedly jarring when the interviews with down-to-earth stem cell scientists, who mostly do not over-hype their research, are bookended by interviews with Margaret Atwood (a writer who is confusingly repeatedly interviewed in a laboratory setting). She makes repeated references to The Fountain of Youth – at odds with the scientists’ messages. Similarly, repeatedly interspersed videos of a topless man doing what looked to be the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira seemed out of place.
Perhaps the only shortcoming of the film, if a bit minor, is that it shies away from getting into some of the nitty-gritty of why iPSCs may be better than hESCs or vice versa, but instead falls back upon the standard argument that hESCs are surrounded by ethical concerns. For a 71-minute-long film, it only makes sense that some issues be simplified, but additional details may have helped viewers better understand this important and hotly-debated topic. Specifically, a lot of the ethical arguments against hESCs are outdated or ill-founded. Probably most importantly, in 2006, Irina Klimanskaya and colleagues found how to isolate hESCs while leaving the donor embryo intact and potentially able to develop normally, weakening the argument against the generation of hESC lines on the grounds that they require the destruction of a potential embryo. Additionally, many researchers use blastocysts that would have been discarded by the in vitro fertilization clinic because the embryos were damaged in some way and would never develop properly. However, a significant strike against using hESCs in treatments, which the film does not touch upon, is the potential for immune rejection. Human iPSCs, on the other hand, are very appealing because they potentially may not have immune rejection problems in treatments, as mentioned in the film. However, human iPSCs are much newer to the stem cell scene and have similarities with cancer cells that researchers should probably better understand before iPSCs are widely used clinically. It is also a little surprising that Jamie Thomson is not mentioned in the human iPSC segment, as his group independently created human iPSCs at the same time as Yamanaka’s group.
The researchers interviewed in the film emphasize the importance of striking a balance between regulation and progress, but then the film seems to not take its own advice and gets bogged down in the regulation of stem cells in the very last segment of the film, when it may have been more useful to focus on the near-future applications of these cells. There’s a surprising focus on the hypothetical ethical arguments that would arise should human iPSCs be made into function eggs and sperm (which has not been done yet, and may not even be possible). However, it may be more useful to first focus on whether human iPSCs can even be successfully used in the clinic before diverting attention to this hypothetical ethical argument, which is much further down the road. It would also have been nice to see a mention of direct reprogramming, the latest stem cell technology that may one day make even iPSCs obsolete.
While there are amazing advances being made with stem cell technology, the film rightly cautions viewers about the dangers of going to a stem cell clinic abroad. A great resource for those considering stem cell treatments abroad is A Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments, a website made by the reputable International Society for Stem Cell Research.
Overall, “STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS” is a great film for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of stem cells, hear legendary researchers talk about their ground-breaking work and patients talk about how stem cell therapies have changed their lives, and still get a down-to-earth idea of what is realistically being accomplished with these cells.