Best analogies for stem cells for public outreach

I’m often asked, “How can I help people ‘get’ stem cells with an analogy?”

What are the best stem cell analogies? Here are the ones I’ve thought up that resonated most powerfully in my public outreach including with kids.

Stem cells as Transformers.Transformers

They are cool.

They can transform into all different kinds of things.

They are exciting.

They are mighty.

They can do positive or negative.


Stem cells as blank tiles in Scrabble.

They can literally be what you want them to be if you use them properly.

They are extremely powerful.stem cells scrabble

They can make things happen.

They can change things up.


Stem cells as a tree or tree trunk.

Stem Cell Symbol

They can grow.

They can branch out.

They can bear fruit.

They are a symbol of hope.

In Portuguese, “stem cells” is “células tronco”, which literally translated means “trunk cells”.

Loring Open Letter to CIRM: Continuing Shared Labs Will Keep California’s Stem Cell Edge

Jeanne LoringBy Jeanne Loring

As the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) celebrates its successes on its 10th anniversary, there is coincidentally a less happy CIRM-related event. One of CIRM’s first investments in stem cell research was a network of dedicated stem cell laboratories throughout California. This program, called “shared labs” has been cancelled.

The shared lab idea originated as a means for California researchers to work on human embryonic stem cells without compromising their funding from the NIH. CIRM invested a million dollars for each of 17 institutions to purchase equipment for a laboratory that would have the sole purpose of supporting human stem cell research, development, and training. They provided a modest stipend for support staff and instructors.

As with every bold idea, there were unexpected consequences. In this case, CIRM did not anticipate that the shared labs would have such an enormous impact beyond their original intention. Over the last 6 years they have existed, the labs have provided the infrastructure upon which California’s reputation as the center of the stem cell universe was built.

Unwittingly, CIRM’s shared lab program jump-started human stem cell research in California, sending it on a trajectory that has led to stem cell clinical trials in just 6 years. Far beyond being havens for embryonic stem cell research, the labs became the places where new technologies were developed and shared, where clinical projects were born, and where scientists carried out the necessary lab work for bringing a stem cell therapy to the clinic.

CIRM did not expect that there would be interaction among the labs that would make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The network of shared labs became our means to communicate and share ideas. It sparked new partnerships between institutions throughout the state, and became a conduit for trainees to move from CIRM’s Bridges internships to graduate school. One scientist described the shared labs as “the beating heart of California’s stem cell program”.

Why would CIRM discontinue such a remarkably successful program with so many unexpected benefits?

The decision was made in 2013, and predates “CIRM 2.0″, the optimistic restructuring that recently breathed new life into the institute. It is being implemented by Randy Mills, who became CIRM’s president just a few months ago.

A year ago, CIRM’s future looked bleak. In December 2013, Alan Trounson was CIRM’s president, and he expected that CIRM would run out of money by 2017, if not sooner. At that month’s meeting of CIRM’s governing committee, called the ICOC (Independent Citizens Oversight Committee), all of the discussion was focused on the end game- how they would spend the last hundreds of millions left in their coffers.

Anticipating an attack on the shared lab program, scientists from 11 of the dedicated CIRM-supported stem cell labs traveled to that ICOC meeting in LA to plead the case for continued support of stem cell infrastructure. We were asking for a chance to reapply for stipend funds for the labs, which would cost CIRM about $350,000 per year for each lab. The transcript of that ICOC meeting is here (jump to page 205) and the blog I wrote about the meeting is here.

Some of the ICOC members found the scientists’ requests compelling, and understood the scientists’ concern that loss of the infrastructure would have negative impact on all aspects of CIRM’s mission, from training young scientists to supporting development of clinical applications for stem cells.

But, money was the main concern, and the decision came down to this: did CIRM want to retain the laboratory infrastructure or did it want to dismantle it and disperse the money to other projects?

The answer was clear to the researchers in the audience and the fact that we were all there was living proof that the shared laboratories had made us into a cohesive group throughout California. In addition, CIRM had already invested nearly $20 million just in the equipment for the labs, and millions more in training the personnel who run them.

One irony is that the NIH now funds a broader range of human embryonic stem cell research, so the original purpose of the labs no longer applies. But the NIH and other funders don’t pay for maintaining labs like these. That idea belongs to CIRM, which remains the only agency that fortuitously created a network of stem cell scientists.

A second irony is that having existing stem cell labs has been a boon for California. Institutions were able to attract an estimated $240 million from granting agencies and philanthropy for research based on the existence of the dedicated stem cell labs. This represents a tenfold return on CIRM’s investment.

In spite of our testimony, we lost. Alan Trounson didn’t pay attention to anything we said, and instead told us that the labs were a luxury that CIRM couldn’t afford, and that we should find other sources of money to pay our staff, perhaps turning the labs into for-profit service centers. We explained that we all had been trying to raise alternative funds for our laboratories for years, but there is concrete evidence that facilities like these just don’t exist in the US without subsidies from a granting agency.

Because of potential conflicts of interest, only 6 members of the 29-member ICOC could vote. Two of them (Art Torres and Diane Winoker) abstained; the other 4 voted to close the program.

What will happen now? One or two labs will be able to support their staff with other grant money and be able to keep their labs, although they will no longer be shared. Some will lose everything: the lab space, the highly trained personnel, and CIRM’s equipment.

The third irony in this story is that the ICOC voted in October 2014 to continue the Bridges internship program for another year, unaware, apparently, that closing the shared labs means there will be no labs in which to teach the interns and no trained personnel to teach them.

I know I speak for the majority of my colleagues when I say that the dedicated stem cell laboratory program was the key to establishing the rapid pace of stem cell research in California. Loss of the labs and their trained personnel will lose us the edge that made California uniquely qualified for stem cell success.

What can we do? We have a very specific request. We ask that CIRM consider one of the ideas raised by an ICOC member at the fateful December meeting: open a new request for applications to allow the shared lab directors to reapply for a competitive award. Since CIRM has already paid for the equipment, we need only to pay for upkeep and for our personnel who run the labs and teach courses to Bridges interns.

I’ve shared this letter with other lab directors; those listed below express their support for this letter.

Dennis Clegg

Peter Donovan

Susan Fisher

Linda Giudice

Arnold Kriegstein

Andrew McMahon

David Schaffer

Evan Snyder

Alice Tarantal

David Warburton

Karl Willert

The nonsensical list of stem cell journals

Stem Cell EnquirerThe list of stem cell journals seems to grow longer every day.

In fact, the list is so long and some of the names kind of funny that it inspires coming up with a slew of satirical and nonsensical stem cell journals.

I’m betting that some of these (the ones listed first) may be thought up independently by people to try to turn into real journals.

Some of these pseudo-journals have popped unjust  in 2014, which are shown in green.


The Nonsensical Stem Cell Journals List

  • Could be real someday?
  • PLoS Stem Cells
  • Stem Cell Sports Medicine
  • Stem Cells Digest
  • IPSC
  • Stem Cell Cosmetics (or Stem Cell Cosmetic Surgery)
  • De-Extinction
  • Steminess
  • Pluripotency
  • Potency
  • Stemomics
  • The Stem Cell
  • Super Silly
  • The Closed Journal of Stem Cells (by invitation only)
  • Stem Cell Fortune
  • Stem Cell Retractions (published weekly)
  • Stem Cell Practice of Medicine (no experiments or research here!)
  • Consumer Stem Cell Reports
  • Stem Cells Illustrated
  • Law and Order: SVF
  • Better Homes and Stem Cells
  • The Journal of Stem Cell Journals
  • The Journal of Stem Cell Duplicated Images
  • Stem Sells
  • Stem Cell High Impact Journal
  • Stem Cels (stem cells in animation)
  • Stem Cell Irreproducible Results
  • Costempolitan (focusing on hottest stem cell treatments of the famous)
  • Good Stem Cell Keeping (stem cell protocols that actually work)
  • Dancing with the Stem Cells
  • Stem Cell Shades of Grey (the sex lives of those ‘enhanced’ by stem cells)
  • Nature Stem Cells
  • Glamour Journal of Stem Cells
  • Cell Cell Cell
  • Stem Cell Data Already Published Elsewhere
  • The Beverly Hills Journal of Stem Cells
  • The Hot Journal of Stem Cells
  • Taste of Stem Cells (journal on stem cell-produced food recipes like burgers)
  • Stem Cells in the Hood
  • Sexy Stem Cells
  • Stem Cell Assays, Therapies, Reports, Studies, Reviews, and Essays
  • Self-Renewal (caution: the journal subscription always renews automatically)
  • Stem Cells Breaking Bad (the effects of drugs on stem cells)
  • American Journal of Stem Cells & Bioethics
  • Stem Cell Media & Medium (how to both grow stem cells and predict the future)
  • Cellular Deprogramming (from cultures to cults)
  • Stem Cell Irreproducible Protocols (reprints of published methods that won’t work)
  • iStem (only available on iPhone with proprietary Apple cable required)
  • Stem Cell Protocols and Recipes
  • Stem Cell Star
  • Stem Cells & Daughter Cells
  • Stem Cell Stem Cell
  • Stem Cellar (vintage collection of fine stem cell stories)
  • Stem Cells & Sons
  • Vatican Journal of Stem Cells
  • The Immortal Journal of Stem Cells
  • The New Immortal Journal of Stem Cells
  • Journal of Stem Cell Clinics
  • As the Stem Cell World Turns
  • People’s Journal of Stem Cells
  • Cloning Encounters of the Good Kind
  • Stem Cell Enquirer

Response from Drs. Braude & Lovell-Badge to My Letter on Mitochondrial Transfer/3-Parent Technology

The following is a response to my Open Letter to the UK Parliament on mitochondrial transfer/3-parent technology from Drs. Peter Braude and Robin Lovell-Badge.

Dear Professor Knoepfler,

We read your open letter to the UK Parliament and the Science and Technology Committee with interest and concern. We are two scientists, like you, with particular interests in genetics, stem cell and developmental biology and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, who were appointed amongst others to form a Panel of independent advisors to the HFEA and the UK Government on the subject of mitochondrial donation. You will no doubt be aware of the three main reports in the public domain, and the recent addendum to the third one, that have been published by this Panel[1]. Those reports are detailed examinations of the current available evidence on the possible use of mitochondrial donation procedures, and their safety and efficacy for severe mitochondrial disease. Unlike the FDA we did not consider the use of cytoplasmic transfer proposed for protracted infertility, nor did we consider the ethics, a task undertaken here by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review[2].

Whilst we take no role in lobbying Parliament, we believe it behoves us to defend the findings as presented in our reports, and the advice that our Panel unanimously agreed should be put forward. In this regard we would like to take the opportunity to correct some of the misunderstanding about the processes in the UK, and to bring to your readers’ attention some of the information we considered in forming our opinions.

First, it is important to appreciate that the regulatory process in the UK by the HFEA is different from that in the USA as demonstrated in the FDA hearing. In contrast to the USA where there is no federal regulation of IVF technology, in the UK we have specific legislation that deals with the use of gametes and human embryos in vitro (HFE Act 1990)[3] wherein, after thorough debate during the 2008 amendments to this legislation, specific provision was made that could allow in prescribed circumstances, processes to be applied to an egg or embryo designed to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease (Section 3ZA(5)). This clause would come into force if allowed by Parliamentary regulations, which are soon to be the subject of the vote you comment upon in your blog. However, even if passed, these Parliamentary regulations would not allow any trial to take place in the UK until the regulator (the HFEA) felt that there was sufficient safety and efficacy information to do so; this is in contrast to the FDA’s Cellular Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory committee hearing which addressed deliberations on permitting a clinical trial. Thus these Parliamentary regulations are in essence ‘enabling legislation’ which would simply take the UK onto the same footing as the current situation in the USA, where safety and efficacy data determine whether clinical application should be allowed. We are therefore not rushing ahead of the USA, and the same issues that concern you and the FDA committee are those that exercised us in our deliberations.

Second, the main difference with the UK approach so far is that rather than spending a day and a half of public presentation and debate to include genetic disease, infertility and ethics, we have spent over three and a half years examining in detail published and also as yet unpublished evidence[4], interviewing those involved with basic and clinical mitochondrial science (including Evan Snyder whom you quote), and holding round table discussions with those ‘at the coal face’ of mitochondrial replacement techniques; we allowed opponents of the technology the opportunity to present their cases in person and included them in our discussions. We have thoroughly examined the ‘more specific risky elements to the proposed experiments’ as suggested by Burgstaller, Dowling, Reinhardt, Morrow and others, and have produced detailed comment in our 2014 report, and have published a rebuttal [5] of the New Scientist article warning about three-parent IVF that you quote. In our 2014 report, we suggested that, where practical, the use of haplotype matching could overcome some concerns, and have taken a view in balancing the theoretical risk of harm against the inevitable inheritance of a serious genetic mutation whose effects and expression are variable and unpredictable, including death, or lifelong disability and the inevitability of transmission along the female line.

We are also concerned in the mistaken general belief that PGD is a panacea for couples with mtDNA mutations – although you yourself acknowledge it is not suitable for all. Although it can help those with mitochondrial disorders of nuclear origin, for those with mtDNA mutations, there are some who have such high levels of heteroplasmy (or homoplasmy) that the likelihood of finding an embryo for transfer with an acceptable mutation level is very low if not impossible. Moreover, it is clear that in many cases of PGD for mtDNA disorders, embryos selected for replacement have a significant heteroplasmy for the mutant gene, much in excess of that being expected for mitochondrial replacement. In these cases, all the concerns being levelled at the risks of carryover of mutant DNA apply here too, but are not mentioned in the arguments put forward against mitochondrial replacement.

We are of the view, and have expressed such to the Select Committee, that most concerns about mitochondrial replacement are based on expecting a near zero tolerance for risk, especially where alternatives might exist. For couples with mtDNA mutations, there are no alternatives that allow the couple to have genetically related children free of mitochondrial disease. No medical first-in-man technique is ever without risk, whether this be heart or kidney transplants, or the first IVF or the first embryo biopsy for preimplantation genetic diagnosis. The risk of treatment must be balanced against the certainty of adverse outcome without.


Peter Braude PhD FRCOG FMedSci

Robin Lovell-Badge PhD FMedSci FRS





[4] All the non-confidential evidence we received is available on the HFEA website1.

[5] Mitochondrial replacement: no need for a rethink|NSNS|2012-GLOBAL|health#.VGNYVL7gZj4

Weigh in on Shirtgate with Poll

A male scientist, Dr. Matt Taylor, who is a leader of the Rosetta comet space mission team wore a shirt covered with cartoon depictions of scantily clad women (you can click on picture of Taylor to see a larger version of the image) during a TV interview.Rosetta Matt Taylor T-shirt

Some people found the wearing of the shirt to be very negative, while others found the reaction to the wearing of the shirt to be the problem instead. Some people’s feelings fall in between.

There has been intense discussion ever since and taken together this all has been termed “Shirtgate” and “Shirtstorm”.

How do you feel about this turn of events?

Take our poll below. Please also weigh in in the comments section.