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Book review: A practical guide to human stem cell biology

Posted by , on 22 December 2011

This book review originally appeared in Development. Neil Singh and Ludovic Vallier review “Human Stem Cell Technology and Biology” (Edited by Gary S. Stein, Maria Borowski, Mai X. Luong, Meng-Jiao Shi, Kelly P. Smith and Priscilla Vasquez).

Book info:
Human Stem Cell Technology and Biology: A Research Guide and Laboratory Manual Edited by Gary S. Stein, Maria Borowski, Mai X. Luong, Meng-Jiao Shi, Kelly P. Smith, Priscilla Vasquez Wiley-Blackwell (2011) 419 pages ISBN 978-0-470-59545-9 £93.50/€112.20 (hardback)

Do we need another book on human stem cell biology? The field is fairly long in the tooth now, thirteen years after Thomson first derived human embryonic stem (ES) cells (Thomson et al., 1998). There are many books that cover the theoretical aspects of the discipline (Oderico et al., 2004) and others that attempt to collate protocols useful to human stem cell biologists (Sullivan et al., 2007). Nevertheless, the new book Human Stem Cell Technology and Biology succeeds in combining both of these characteristics, providing not only a clear account of the scientific discoveries underpinning human stem cell biology, but also a useful range of laboratory protocols. The end product may be less comprehensive than Lanza’s classic text (Lanza et al., 2009), but it is perhaps more manageable and appropriate for a newcomer to the field or for an early career scientist working with human pluripotent cell lines for the first time.

The editors are all based at the Center for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The individual chapters are written predominantly by scientists from institutes on the East coast of the United States, although some contributors are based in Australia, Canada and China. The book is divided broadly into five sections: an introduction; two sections on the culture and characterisation of human pluripotent stem cells; and two sections covering more recent technologies and applications relevant to human ES cells.

In the introduction, the authors have managed to distill over 50 years of stem cell advances in just a few pages of text. Although this may be too short for experienced scientists hoping for a colourful narrative history of each breakthrough, we think it does well to bring even novice readers up to speed with current thinking in stem cell biology, from the bottom up.

The sections containing protocols are excellent and provide the perfect framework for experimental work on human stem cells. Each chapter is devoted to a separate technique and begins with an extremely helpful overview that underlines the basic steps, and importance, of each protocol. The layout has been well thought out, supplementing the customary ‘equipment’ and ‘procedure’ sections with helpful tables, log sheets with blanks to be filled in and space for the reader to make their own notes in the margin. These protocols have been used as part of practical courses in stem cell biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School for several years, and this is evident by the careful explanation of each technique in the book and the thoughtful addition of pros and cons of each technique.

Later sections of the book will appeal to established stem cell investigators as they summarise the latest in bioinformatic, genomic, epigenetic and proteomic analyses of human stem cells. These chapters provide a brief account of the logic and application of these various techniques, and feature tables and pictorial representations of the scientific basis of the techniques. This is most notable in the chapter on epigenetics.

Four years after Yamanaka’s group first successfully reprogrammed differentiated adult human dermal fibroblasts into pluripotent cells (Takahashi et al., 2007), much attention should be paid to the chapter devoted to reprogramming and induced pluripotent stem cells. It outlines the differences between reprogramming during fertilisation and during somatic cell nuclear transfer. The chapter describes the major developments in reprogramming, such as the use both of cell extracts and of transcription factors, most notably the Yamanaka factors: Oct4, Sox2, c-myc and Klf4. The chapter does well to highlight the limitations of the current protocols, as well as recent attempts to improve the efficiency and safety of classical directed reprogramming using the Yamanaka factors.

Much has been made of the potential applications of human stem cell biology. The final section deals with these applications. These include the use of stem cells in drug screening (testing various types and doses of medications to streamline the drug development process); stem cells as in vitro models of disease (to further understanding of aetiology and pathogenesis); and stem cells in cell therapy (using stem cells or insights into growth conditions to help repopulate and regenerate degenerative and diseased organs). Although brief, the final chapter manages to encapsulate the major recent breakthroughs and future prospects for cell replacement therapies in ectodermal, mesodermal and endodermal tissues.

One of the book’s major strengths is the accompanying DVD. It provides printable copies of the protocols from the book, and even has a helpful search tool, which we found extremely useful. The DVD also contains six videos, which demonstrate good laboratory practice, aseptic technique and how to harvest, passage and thaw cells. We would strongly recommend that laboratories use these videos as part of the induction of new members to stem cell labs, as few laboratory members have the time or training to offer such a clear and standardised tutelage on the basics of laboratory practice and stem cell culture. The lead editor, Professor Gary Stein, provides much of the training in these videos himself. The book also boasts a student companion website ( which is supposed to collate updates, amendments and additional resources. However, we were disappointed to discover that at the time of writing there were no additional resources available.

We would recommend this readable and well-organised book to all laboratories dealing with human ES cells. We envisage that a laboratory copy will prove to be invaluable as a reference text for all new members of your laboratory, and the later sections will be of benefit to more senior investigators. Although not the most energetic nor the most exhaustive book of this type on the market, this volume succeeds by summarising the historic and recent research breakthroughs in human ES cell science and combining this with excellent and reliable laboratory protocols. To the beginner, the field of stem cell biology – with a burgeoning number of principles, terms and techniques to master – can seem impossible to navigate. This book will act as an excellent guide.

* Lanza R., Gearhart J., Hogan B., Melton D., Pedersen R. A., Thomas E. D., Thomson J. A., Wilmut I. (2009). Essentials of Stem Cell Biology. Maryland Heights: Academic Press.
Odorico J., Pedersen R. A., Zhang S. (2004). Human Embryonic Stem Cells. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.
* Sullivan S., Cowan C. A., Eggan K. (2007). Human Embryonic Stem Cells: The Practical Handbook. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.
* Takahashi K., Tanabe K., Ohnuki M., Narita M., Ichisaka T., Tomoda K., Yamanaka S. (2007). Induction of pluripotent stem cells from adult human fibroblasts by defined factors. Cell 131, 861–872.
* Thomson J. A., Itskovitz-Eldor J., Shapiro S. S., Waknitz M. A., Swiergiel J. J., Marshall V. S., Jones J. M. (1998). Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts. Science 282, 1145–1147.

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