Non-Fiction Reviews

Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction

(2012) Jonathan Slack, Oxford University Press, 7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xiv +130pp, ISBN 978-0-199-60338-1


Your body (as well as those of other multi-celled animals and plants) is made up of cells and nearly all of these are highly specialised: retinal cells in eyes, neuron cells in brains, liver cells and so forth. However a retinal cell cannot become a liver cell. Stem cells are a very special, and comparatively rare in the body, type of cell that can become a number of different types of specialist cell. Furthermore if you can induce from a patient a stem cell line then there is the possibility of creating specialised cells that when transplanted back into the patient they will not suffer immune rejection. In short, stem cells are biomedically important as they hold out the promise of tissue regeneration as well as being of scientific interest.

However stem cell science is very new. For example, mouse embryonic stem cells were only first isolated in 1998. This means that we are still building a good knowledge base on which we might ultimately base a wide range of future treatments for disease and injury. It also means that there is some myth surrounding stem cells and some clinicians (medical doctors as opposed to research scientist doctors) are indulged in quackery (fraud) as part of what has come to be known as stem cell tourism since such quacks tend to operate outside of well-regulated developed nations.

And so Jonathan Slack's very concise short guide to stem cells is most valuable indeed. Now science may well be sometimes hard to understand but it is not impossible and once you get to grips with it it is very logical. Patients (and the parents of patients) who have an illness/injury are often very keen to learn about their condition and put the effort in. Indeed even the few who cannot will no doubt have a relative who can. Jonathan Slack's guide should be the first port of call for anyone considering stem cell therapy; just invest 8 (US$12) in this guide before thousands on a therapy that may well not work or result in a tumour or worse. I cannot stress the critical importance of this advice.

This guide will also be of interest to anyone studying biology (and related bioscience) prior to university or indeed even in the first year at university, as it has nearly all the basic key information you will need unless you wish to specialise in cell biology and/or a biomedical science in which case this book can be a springboard into a more advanced text.

The 'A Very Short Introduction' series is currently aimed at lay readers and its 300 volumes mainly focus on the arts and humanities (including history) with only a few on scientific matters. Yet I am confident (having been involved in publishing biology) that if this series teamed up with the Oxford U. Press science departments they could develop specialist introductory series in biology, chemistry and physics that could straddle the late school and early university markets. These would be amazingly useful as specialist textbooks are expensive and while materials are available on the internet, internet resources are all over the place and their provenance in terms of peer-review authority is dubious. A cheap authoritative concise alternative would hit the spot. Just a thought OUP. (Get in touch if you decide to run with it.)

To sum up, this guide will be invaluable for patients considering stem cell options as well as useful for school pupils who are considering going on to study a biological science at university. For these readers I cannot recommend this guide too highly.

Jonathan Cowie

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