Japanese researchers delivered some fun news at the American College of Cardiology earlier this week: They have successfully harvested stem cells from the menstrual blood of six women. Which is pretty frigging cool. Scientists currently collect stem cells from a variety of places, including human embryos, fetal tissue, umbilical-cord blood, and other human tissue, like the bone marrow of adults and children. Adding menstrual blood to the list seems attractive for several reasons: Menstrual blood is plentiful; it's easy to extract (the body gets rid of it anyway); and it's less controversial than most of the other sources. I for one love the idea that I could contribute to world health just by menstruating. Plus, the scientists reported that they got 30 times as many stem cells from these women's blood than they typically get from bone marrow. Yay!
And so the world heaved a collective sigh of relief that the stem cell controversy is over at last. Right?
Well, not necessarily. The harvesting of stem cells from menstrual blood is great news, but it's not yet clear how useful these stem cells will turn out to be. They might be able to form specific kinds of cells; Reuters reported that the Japanese researchers thought these menstrual-blood stem cells could be "coaxed into forming specialized heart cells." Or they might be more limitedly useful, like stem cells from bone marrow, which are mostly used to treat blood-related illnesses like leukemia and not to replicate organ tissue.
Either way, though, it's unlikely that menstrual-blood stem cells will turn out to be as plastic -- which is to say, as potentially useful for treating a wide variety of illnesses -- as embryonic stem cells. So we're locked into the debate over embryonic stem cell research no matter what.
Side note: If you check out the Reuters story link, you'll see that the Australian Broadcasting Company's News in Science section ran a stock photo of a young woman to illustrate the point that "Stem cells harvested from young women's menstrual blood have a longer lifespan than those from older women." This struck me as kind of comically inappropriate, and blogger Laurel's Loft snappily sums up why: "So, this particular woman is now associated as a supplier of menstrual blood for stem cells. I'm sure when she was having her photo taken, possibly years ago, and signed a model release (as is required for all published photographs of a person) she would never have imagined the possibility that she would be become the poster-woman for menstruating stem-cell donors.
"Apparently 'News In Science' felt that it's readership was so ignorant that they really needed to know what a woman looks like."