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Open Access Correspondence

Is belief larger than fact: expectations, optimism and reality for translational stem cell research

Tania Bubela1*, Matthew D Li1, Mohamed Hafez2, Mark Bieber1 and Harold Atkins2

Author affiliations

1 Department of Public Health Sciences, School of Public Health, Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

2 The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, The Ottawa Hospital General Campus, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Medicine 2012, 10:133  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-133

Published: 6 November 2012

Abstract

Background

Stem cell (SC) therapies hold remarkable promise for many diseases, but there is a significant gulf between public expectations and the reality of progress toward clinical application. Public expectations are fueled by stakeholder arguments for research and public funding, coupled with intense media coverage in an ethically charged arena. We examine media representations in light of the expanding global landscape of SC clinical trials, asking what patients may realistically expect by way of timelines for the therapeutic and curative potential of regenerative medicine?

Methods

We built 2 international datasets: (1) 3,404 clinical trials (CT) containing 'stem cell*' from ClinicalTrials.gov and the World Health Organization's International Clinical Trials Registry Search Portal; and (2) 13,249 newspaper articles on SC therapies using Factiva.com. We compared word frequencies between the CT descriptions and full-text newspaper articles for the number containing terms for SC type and diseases/conditions. We also developed inclusion and exclusion criteria to identify novel SC CTs, mainly regenerative medicine applications.

Results

Newspaper articles focused on human embryonic SCs and neurological conditions with significant coverage as well of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In contrast, CTs used primarily hematopoietic SCs, with an increase in CTs using mesenchymal SCs since 2007. The latter dominated our novel classification for CTs, most of which are in phases I and II. From the perspective of the public, expecting therapies for neurological conditions, there is limited activity in what may be considered novel applications of SC therapies.

Conclusions

Given the research, regulatory, and commercialization hurdles to the clinical translation of SC research, it seems likely that patients and political supporters will become disappointed and disillusioned. In this environment, proponents need to make a concerted effort to temper claims. Even though the field is highly promising, it lacks significant private investment and is largely reliant on public support, requiring a more honest acknowledgement of the expected therapeutic benefits and the timelines to achieving them.

Keywords:
stem cell therapy; clinical trials; public expectations; newspaper coverage; commercialization; ethics