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Stem Cell Revolutions: A Review

Posted by , on 2 July 2012

Stem cells are often in the media and are promoted as wonder cells that can solve the problems of most diseases. The stories told throughout this film give the story of stem cells behind the hype and describes the  real state of stem cell research and therapies today as well as what we are aiming for in the future! My first thought after watching Stem Cell Revolutions was: wow, is education supposed to be this entertaining? Although I have been working in the stem cell field for a few years now, I learnt a lot from watching this film so a big personal thank you to the makers of the film- Amy Hardie and Clare Blackburn for producing a documentary that provides such amazing and enthralling insights into the stem cell research field.

Stem Cell Revolutions takes us on a journey that begins with how stem cells were discovered around 50 years ago following  the study of patients in Hiroshima who were suffering from radiation damage. Following research examining the “factory where blood cells are made” , the bone marrow, Canadian scientists Till and McCulloch discovered blood stem cells: the first discovery of stem cells!! The story moves on to the discovery of other adult stem cell populations and the development of therapies for example Howard Green’s work on skin grafts and then onto restoring vision in India using stem cells. This then brings us to possibly the most controversial stem cell category, embryonic stem cells, whose discovery is discussed by Sir Martin Evans, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2007 for his discoveries involving embryonic stem cells.

We then change gears and move on to the fascinating story of  how Professor Shinya Yamanaka’s work in which adult cells e.g. skin cells can be turned into an embryonic stem cell-like state, which as Connie Eaves says “turned our understanding of human development on its head” . The field of iPSC research is a relatively new stem cell field and I think what is great in this section is that we learn that this work had its basis in the cloning work completed in frogs by Sir John Gurdon and the creation of Dolly the Sheep by Sir Ian Wilmut. The ending of the film is led by the interesting question ‘Where Could It Lead?’. I for one am excited by finding out where stem cell research leads us in the next decade. Furthermore, the challenges that the stem cell field faces in terms of restrictions by legislation, ethical issues and current limitations of stem cell technology are all dealt with in a manner that gives the truth behind sensationalism reported in the media.

The stem cell story is told via interviews with many of the key players who work at the cutting edge of stem cell research field from Connie Eaves to Sir Martin Evans and Austin Smith to Shinya Yamanaka, many of whom I have been lucky enough to learn from directly, and whose expertise and inside knowledge provide great strength to this film. Additionally, the documentary really shows of the global nature of stem cell research and how communications across the globe are leading to progression.  However, I believe the real genius in this documentary was the inclusion of acclaimed author Margaret Atwood, who provides a perspective from a non-scientist. I particularly enjoyed the challenging interactions between Margaret Atwood and Professor Austin Smith– director of the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. Another great highlight is the animations and illustrations along the journey- stem cell biology really comes to life via these means. I have to admit I am not sure of the significance of the dancing man, or why we need to see Austin cycling to/from the institute, though the latter really did make me smile.

Stem Cell Revolutions gives us the current status of stem cell research in a captivating yet easy to digest manner and leads us into what is possible in the future! It is a must see for anyone who wants to learn about stem cell biology. It is amazing to think that many discoveries that lie in wait may be uncovered by a very simple question as posed by Margaret Atwood to describe the origins of both art and science:-“What if?”.




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