The cheating death excitation

Who doesn’t want to cheat death?

I know I certainly do.

Cheating deathCan stem cells help many people in the immediate future to escape death (pictured here in personified form as Death t from Wikipedia)?

Recent headlines on new stem cell-related clinical developments would make you think so and they go a step further to indicate that such miracles are just around the corner.

We are all susceptible to such hype.

When it was early days after my diagnosis with prostate cancer in 2009 one of the many doctors that I saw said something that has really stuck with me.

“Our goal is to help you die of something else besides prostate cancer!”

What this doctor said is perfectly right as a goal, but it stunned me a bit at the time.

I don’t want to die of prostate cancer, but I don’t really want to die of anything. However, I will be dying of something eventually whether it is that or something else.

Something will eventually get you too.

It’s just not fun to think about.

Instead it’s a lot more enjoyable and exciting to imagine escaping death through some cutting edge, sci-fi-ish technology like stem cells.

In the last few weeks there’ve been an unusually large number of papers and newspaper headlines about stem cell clinical developments and as much as I hate to say it as an advocate for the stem cell field, many of these cases have been hyped.

The reporters, their headlines and in some cases even some of those involved in the research seemingly would like you to think that cures for all kinds of bad things are about to happen tomorrow. These kinds of pieces often also tend to ignore the often equally important work of scientific competitors as well, which is surely not a good thing.

It can be difficult to sort through to discern what is real hope versus hype and to see the bigger picture where there are many groups doing great things.

There are some words and phrases that tend to crop up that can be clues to what is being hyped in the stem cell headlines: “miraculous”, “cure”,” breakthrough”, and assorted comparisons to once-in-a-century or -millennium kind of events such as landing on a man on the moon or the development of antibiotics. If you see those breathless kind of words, paradoxically you should be less excited and more skeptical.

Stem cell technology will be that important overall and it will make such humanity-changing events come to pass, but we aren’t there yet. It’ll probably take another decade or two to really get closer to being a reality. Raising expectations sky high right now with over-the-top claims and headlines is not helpful to progress. At the same time being an advocate for this work and drumming up interest is important, especially in these days of minimal funding. The key is balance.

So I’d say get excited and talk about the cool stem cell work going on, but also do your homework, give credit to competitors where credit is due, temper your statements a bit, and keep plugging away on the research.

Note: the title of this post was inspired by the titles of Big Bang Theory episodes.

4 thoughts on “The cheating death excitation


  1. Those diagnosed with cancer are not given enough real information to decide what to walk away from or to give their lives for. I did secondary analysis on an incredible patient interview where the patient found out about 6 forms of DCIS breast cancer, not just stages etc, She was able to share how they were missed characteristics of each form and why one treatment worked better than another, it was more helpful than any shared decision aid or web education I have seen.

    For people to choose the choice of knowing cancer and knowing stem cells is a must, they are not offered this so hope and chance fill in the chaos left behind. Patients are the most underutilized asset in science discovery.

    These patients did something about it http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2014/10/17/amy-price-patients-doing-research-for-themselves and everywhere in groups they are searching out research but we have fallen short of equipping them to research their own conditions and patronize them when they search without us and come up short.

    I thought readers might like to know about BMJ patient reviewer training http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g3726/rr/702064 where they could review articles about their conditions or regenerative medicine more here: http://www.bmj.com/about-bmj/resources-reviewers/guidance-patient-reviewers even if they never review it will still help them find top papers in their areas of interest


  2. Thanks, Amy. Thanks, Paul. I have enormous respect for patients who work to really understand their affliction. I know that I’ve learned from them.


  3. OK, I’ll take the bait.

    I take it that your Stem Cell News link to the advertorial
    http://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2014/11/05/adv-surgery-isnt-best-answer-free-stem-cell-therapy-consultation/#.VFz2joV3_hc
    is intended as an example of extreme hype. The advertorial trys to hoodwink the uncritical reader by including a link to a review article that seems to have little to do with the specific treatment being advertised… Personally, I don’t call this “hype”, I call it dishonest.

    The article also makes some very strange statements, for example:
    “After an injury, or as a natural result of aging, the amount of stem cells needed in certain areas of the body declines.”
    Silly me, I thought that the need for adult stem cells would be increased in order to repair an injury!


  4. Everybody dies someday, some just a little sooner than others. If you are born it is a guarantee that you will die. Personally though, I would like a better quality of life than what I have currently. If stem cells treatments can do that, more the better.

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