About half way through a lecture by Elaine Fuchs, internationally recognized scientist and a member of my university, it occurred to me that stem cells have a bad rap.
Due to the various confluences of the media, extremist groups, and the religious right wing, the word “stem cells” often conjures up images of embryos. The cells Dr. Fuchs was describing, however, should conjure up images of skin. Skin is constantly turning over and regrowing- both to regenerate the outer layer and to repair acute wounds. To be able to do so, it needs to have access to cells that have the capacity to divide, replicate, and to form various different cell types. These are the skin stem cells.
There are three types of skin stem cell: those that make the skin layer itself, those that can turn into the sweat glands, and those that can make hair follicles. Each of these have been shown to occupy a different niche within the dermal layer, and generally form a specific type of cell. Unless, however, there is a wound. In this case all bets are off, and whatever stem cell lies in the vicinity will respond, somehow mobilized to move into the region to replace dying cells.
It was at this point in the talk that I realized the public image when thinking about stem cells should perhaps be something like this:
Yes, this is a cartoon of a cell (organelles and all) wearing a red cape. And no, I do not plan on quitting my day job to go into computer graphics.
All I would like to do, is to propose a new image of a “stem cell”. Think not of an evil thing, something that comes from embryos, something that scientists should not be playing with, a “god complex” enabling tool wielded only by amoral atheistic scientists.
Instead, picture a red-cape wearing superman of a cell, waiting patiently in his phone booth, ready at the beck and call of your body to become, well, whatever you might need him to be.
Today’s picture is of the daughter of my neighbor playing with a Strawberry Shortcake doll. I too had a Strawberry Shortcake doll when I was her age, but mine was tiny and the hair smelled of fruit.