Let’s Be Clear: Stem Cells and Popular Culture

The following is a guest blog from Matt Donne, PhD. Thoughts expressed here are not necessarily those of CIRM.

It was during winter break of my Junior year in college that the gap between the general public’s understanding of embryonic stem cell biology and the reality of that research quickly came into focus for me.

I was out to lunch with my grandmother and excited to see her to share my new research project I had started with human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). While enjoying our lunch together discussing school, relationships, and such, a friend of hers approached to say hello. Immediately my grandmother proclaimed, “This is my grandson Matthew and he is a scientist. He just started working with stem cells to cure cancer.”  Now this statement was not true, but harmless enough so I figured I would let it go. Her friend’s eyes immediately grew large and she quickly felt it necessary to educate us on what exactly I was doing by working with “stem cells”. In her friend’s words I was, “killing babies and sucking out their brains to make stem cells.”

My grandmother and I were both silenced and confused, for different reasons, as her friend quickly walked away in disgust. My grandmother asked concernedly if this was in fact true. I explained that this could not be farther from the truth, and that this friend was extremely misinformed. We then discussed the difference between a developing fetus and the 3 to 5 day old embryos from which these hESC lines were derived. We also discussed these embryos were donated by couples who seek in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. Specifically, the donated embryos were those which the couple no longer needed and therefore decided to donate them for research proposes to help advance both science and medicine rather than discard them. This fact-based explanation eased many of the fears my grandmother had as to the research. This, however, left in me a fear that over 10 years later I still see playing out in popular culture.

Most recently my frustration toward this misinformation came when I saw a posting by VICE of a carton entitled ‘Magical Stem Cells’. The cartoon was a truly gross and inaccurate representation of where embryonic stem cells are derived, as it portrayed a unicorn fetus essentially being harvested to create “magical” stem cells that can turn into any other cell, tissue or organ in the body. This is wholly inaccurate. It is possible that the cartoon was created to positively promote the potential of stem cell biology, however anyone somewhat versed in the field would find it misleading, disgusting, scary and dangerous.

Vice comic: Magical Stem Cells

Vice comic: Magical Stem Cells

Similarly, the creators of South Park several years back had an episode in which Christopher Reeves was essentially a spokesperson for the research and its potential to cure spinal cord injury. They equated stem cell therapies, like the VICE cartoon, to the use of fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes. Let’s be clear, stem cell biology and stem cell research does not universally mean the use of fetal tissue. In fact, most often the fields of stem cell biology are broken down into three main groups: hESCs, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs, which are adult cells that have been re-engineered to have embryonic-like qualities), and the broader category of adult stem cells. Use of cells taken from aborted human fetuses, either for research or clinical trials, is in fact the exception to the rule.

The term “stem cell” was first used in 1877 when German biologist Ernst Haeckel wrote about a “stem cell” being the fertilized egg from which all cells of the placenta and body arise.1 In 1981, U.C. San Francisco’s Gail Martin became the first scientist to isolate pluripotent cells (which can turn into any other cell in the body) from mouse embryos and coined the term “embryonic stem cells” to describe them.2 It was not until 1998 that James Thomson created the first hESC lines.3

A few interesting facts about blastocyst stage embryos, which were the source of the first embryonic stem cell lines, are that they look the same in mice, humans, dogs, horses, and cows and are typically comprised of no more than several hundred cells. It is also important to note that embryonic stem cells, by definition, can only come from up to blastocyst stage embryos (about 5-7 days after fertilization). Cells taken from embryos older than the blastocyst stage have already begun specializing into specific cell lineages, and are no longer capable of making all cell types.

This, I think, is extremely important to emphasize, as too many people seem to believe that we get our embryonic stem cells from fetuses. I think it is also important to point out that now several groups have published on potential “embryo-safe” methods of embryonic stem cell derivation4-6, which use a single cell from the early, cleavage stage embryo for derivation. This removal of a single cell from such an early stage embryo has been demonstrated to have no negative consequences to the developing embryo, as it has been used for years in IVF clinics. Development of this technique in turn can help alleviate some of the ethical concerns that people have about the use of donated human embryos for research. Lastly, advances in the techniques and use of both iPSCs and adult stem cells alleviate any potential concerns raised by hESCs.

What I hope to achieve in this opinion piece is to raise a general awareness that some commonly held views on stem cells need to be overturned. This can only happen through continued open conversations and discussions. An important way to achieve this is through outreach and education of young students to get them excited about science and the potential of stem cell biology. Resources such as CIRM’s free online education portal and Outschool’s online teaching platform are great example of how to make this happen. Using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to post peer-reviewed publications or review articles is another way to make a positive impact.

There are so many amazing things happening in the various fields of stem cell biology that now, more than ever, it is important we lean on facts and push for communicating truths to further our progress of educating the public. What I ask of you at this point is to not sit back and shake your head when you see or read something you know is wrong, such as VICE’s “magical stem cells” cartoon. Please say something, and teach someone.   

Matt Donne

Matt Donne

Matt Donne recently finished his PhD in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the University of California, San Francisco, where he was awarded a CIRM Fellowship. Previously he was a CIRM student at San Francisco State University.  He has shared his passion for stem cell biology with students of all ages for over 10 years. His passion for stem cell biology and animals has brought him to VitroLabs, where he is changing how leather is manufactured.


1          Ramalho-Santos, M. & Willenbring, H. On the origin of the term “stem cell”. Cell Stem Cell 1, 35-38, doi:10.1016/j.stem.2007.05.013 (2007).

2          Martin, G. R. Isolation of a pluripotent cell line from early mouse embryos cultured in medium conditioned by teratocarcinoma stem cells. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 78, 7634-7638 (1981).

3          Thomson, J. A. et al. Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts. Science 282, 1145-1147 (1998).

4          Klimanskaya, I., Chung, Y., Becker, S., Lu, S. J. & Lanza, R. Human embryonic stem cell lines derived from single blastomeres. Nature 444, 481-485, doi:10.1038/nature05142 (2006).

5          Zdravkovic, T. et al. Human stem cells from single blastomeres reveal pathways of embryonic or trophoblast fate specification. Development 142, 4010-4025, doi:10.1242/dev.122846 (2015).

6          Chung, Y. et al. Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines Generated without Embryo Destruction. Cell Stem Cell 2, 113-117, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2007.12.013 (2008).


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