An Insider’s Guide to Stem Cells: new book looks at the good, the bad and the future of stem cell research

Paul Knoepfler in his lab at UC Davis: Photo courtesy of UC Davis Medical Center

Paul Knoepfler’s life changed one October day in 2009. For years Paul had been going into the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center as a stem cell researcher. But this day he was about to cross over to the other side, as a patient. After a series of tests he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was just 42 years old.

Four years later Knoepfler’s cancer is in remission but the experience left him determined to do as much as he could with whatever time he had. He became an avid blogger and an outspoken advocate for stem cell research, and now he is the author of a new book, “Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide” (World Scientific Publishing).

The book is a step-by-step guide to stem cells and the research that is trying to harness their power to repair and restore our bodies. But it’s no dry textbook where you constantly have to stop and google words to understand what he’s talking about, or to read passages two or three times to understand them. Instead it’s a thoughtful, imaginative and wonderfully clear look at the world of stem cell research, the progress being made, the controversies surrounding some aspects of this work, and the potential for life-changing therapies.

Paul – who has a $2 million CIRM New Faculty grant to study the inner workings of stem cells so we can use them safely and effectively – says we should be constantly amazed at what stem cells can do for us, their role in helping make us who we are to begin with by creating all the organs and tissues in our body, but also their ability to repair damage.

“Pull a muscle at the gym? It is your own stem cell “doctors” that fix that. Scrape your elbows and knees after crashing while cycling? Ever wonder how your skin gets better in a matter of days? Most of us do not even give this healing a second thought in terms of how it works even though it is somewhat miraculous. The answer is that your own platoon of skin stem cells mobilizes and acting together as micromechanics they fix you up with new skin.”

There is a real need for a book like this. As Paul points out, even today, very little is taught in schools about stem cells:

“Stem cells are the single, most powerful type of cell in our bodies because of their ability to replace almost any type of injured or dying cell, yet almost no one teaches about them in school. Our children carry around millions of endogenous stem cells too, in fact likely even more than their parents do. Puzzlingly, though, with few exceptions almost no one has taught kids about their stem cells in school until college and often not even at that point.

Kids know about red blood cells that carry oxygen and white blood cells that fight off infection. They could pass a quiz on that stuff. But most have no clue about the hematopoietic (blood) stem cells without which they would have no blood cells of any kind and hence no immune system. They do not know about skin stem cells, which repair their scrapes and cuts. They do not know about stem cells in their brains that are building and remodeling their brains, influencing who they are and literally how they think.”

Paul writes not as a scientist – though he does a great job of explaining the science – but as a person fascinated by this work and eager to share that sense of amazement with others. He doesn’t sugar coat the problems that lie ahead in turning the promise of stem cell research into reality, nor the willingness of some practitioners to try and cash in on that promise with unfounded claims of miracle cures. What he does is lay out in clear and simple language where we are with the research, the scientific, legal and ethical challenges facing us, and ultimately where we are going.

“I do believe that stem cells are the next medical revolution on the horizon. In fact that revolution is already underway. I hope that through this book you now have a deeper understanding of stem cells and their potential clinical use. Stem cells are today’s new frontier of medicine that will no doubt have an unimaginable impact on our lives, but even more so on the lives of many of our kids and grandchildren.”

Kevin McCormack

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