The best books on stem cells from a scientist who studies them

Jonathan Slack Author Of Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction
By Jonathan Slack

Who am I?

I spent my career in developmental biology: the science of how embryos develop. My main discovery was the discovery of one of the signals that controls development, called the fibroblast growth factor. Stem cell biology grew up on the basis of previous discoveries in developmental biology, and now, every day, people around the world use fibroblast growth factor among other substances to control the development of their stem cells. From 2007-2012 I was Director of the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota, so I got a good inside view of the whole field.

I wrote...

Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction

By Jonathan Slack,

Book cover of Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

The topic of stem cells has a high profile in the media. We've made important advances in scientific understanding, but despite this, the clinical applications of stem cells are still in their infancy and most real stem cell therapy carried out today is some form of bone marrow transplantation. In this Very Short Introduction, I introduce stem cells, explore what they are, and what scientists do with them.

Introducing both embryonic and tissue-specific stem cells, I explain how they can be used to treat diseases such as retinal degeneration, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and spinal trauma. I also warn against fake stem cell treatments and discuss how to distinguish real from fake treatments.

The books I picked & why

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Stem Cells For Dummies

By Lawrence S. B. Goldstein,

Book cover of Stem Cells For Dummies

Why this book?

This book is much better than it looks at first sight. Although the “for dummies” theme might be off-putting to some, it is a serious account of stem cells with good scientific content. With 360 pages it has space to cover many topics and deals with the legal and ethical side of the field as well as the science and medicine. To me, it is perhaps a little too credulous about “miracle cells” that can turn into anything but is a lot less credulous than many other sources.

Stem Cells: Scientific Facts and Fiction

By Christine L. Mummery, Anja Van de Stolpe, Bernard Roelen, Hans Clevers

Book cover of Stem Cells: Scientific Facts and Fiction

Why this book?

This is a beautiful book written by a great team from Utrecht in the Netherlands. It starts with a potted introduction to cell and developmental biology. I like this because, as a developmental biologist myself, I know that it is the basic science underpinning stem cell biology. It explains embryonic stem cells and cloning. Before covering transplantation therapy it explains about immune rejection of grafts and how this is dealt with. Unlike most books on stem cells, it covers non-therapeutic applications such as the study of human development or the use of stem cell-derived cells for safety testing of drugs.

The first and second editions had fabulous colour pictures all the way through. Sadly the 3rd edition has been downgraded to black and white.

The Stem Cell Dilemma: Beacons of Hope or Harbingers of Doom?

By Leo Furcht, William Hoffman,

Book cover of The Stem Cell Dilemma: Beacons of Hope or Harbingers of Doom?

Why this book?

This is a popular book, focusing on human interest but still scientifically reputable. Its main theme is the ethics, law, and politics of stem cells, mostly from a US perspective. It describes the debate in the USA about embryonic stem cells and how it polarized the nation. It covers many examples of political maneuvering to establish rules and regulations. It also has an international dimension and describes the legal position in countries around the world. I like it because I was in the USA during many of these debates and feel the book nicely captures the atmosphere of the controversy.

Cancer Stem Cells: Philosophy and Therapies

By Lucie Laplane,

Book cover of Cancer Stem Cells: Philosophy and Therapies

Why this book?

You don’t often get philosophers delving into the biomedical sciences. They mostly prefer physics and cosmology. But there are great pickings in the other sciences too! 

Laplane considers the various proposed attributes of stem cells and classifies these as categorical, dispositional, relational, and system-based. She concludes that stem cells do comprise a "natural kind" i.e. a real thing, out there, not just a figment of our imagination. What emerges from this critical evaluation is that we should think not about stem cells as such but about stem-type behaviors that may be shown by various cell populations in specific circumstances. Defining stem cells is slippery and difficult, but defining stem cell behavior is relatively easy, and stem cell behavior is real and important.

Therapy with Cultured Cells

By Howard Green,

Book cover of Therapy with Cultured Cells

Why this book?

A little-known gem! Howard Green was a pioneer of research with stem cells from the skin. Back in the 1970s, he developed methods to grow them in vitro He went on to use this technology to enable treatment for very severe burns which covered too much of the body to make grafting feasible. The text is rather terse but this is a remarkable laboratory and clinical vignette from one who was there. 

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