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Stem cells, like the ancient Chinese ruyi sceptre, mean different things for different people. For doctors and patients they are a miracle cure for everything, and only just round the corner, for governments they combine a major national commercial opportunity with a deadly threat to the moral fibre of humanity, and for venture capitalists they are a future gold mine and a haven from the dot com carnage. But for the scientists working with them, well, the scientists are not quite sure what stem cells are. Some chapters in MS Rao's edited collection “Stem cells and CNS development” attempt a definition of a “true” stem cell, but like fragments of the True Cross, they are elusive. Stem cells should be capable of infinite division (but stopping just short of immortality), reproducing themselves, as well as producing highly differentiated specialised progeny, remaining quiescent until required, and capable, when transplanted, of recognising exactly what tissues are lacking or diseased, turning into them (and into no others) in just the right numbers, migrating to the required area, and incorporating themselves into new, now fully functional host tissues.
Is there a neural stem cell, analogous to the haemopoietic stem cell? The progeny of a haemopoietic stem cell only have to be released into the circulation. If we can find a source of neural stem cells, can their progeny be expected to incorporate equally easily into the immensely complex network of the adult nervous system? Will we be able to discover the factors needed to drive stem cell differentiation in the directions needed to produce the specific progeny required for a particular application? If the current state of play in the practical application of haemopoietic stem cells is anything to go by, we may have to wait a while before neural stem cells will be curing diseases.
The reader will find all these topics dealt with in Rao's compendium. It is fully referenced, and provides a comprehensive and valuable snapshot of where things are now. Hopefully the reader's copy will not, like this review copy, have 15 pages missing, and seven duplicated.
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