Elizabeth Finkel, science journalist and sister-in-law of Hadassah Australia in Melbourne President Ron Finkel, has written a book about the impassioned stem cell research debate. Entitled Stem Cells: Controversy at the Frontiers of Science, the book translates the complex science into layman’s terms and explores the politics and resulting media spins, the moral conflicts, the economics, and the impact of all these issues on the future of stem cell research.

Dr. Finkel holds a Ph.D in Biochemistry from the University of Melbourne and did post-doctoral research at the University of California in San Fransisco. After returning to Australia, she traded the laboratory bench for the laptop and became a writer for both scientific and lay audiences.

Excerpt from the chapter on spinal cord injury:

The prize for the hottest video clip of 2002 did not go to Madonna or Eminem but to a white rat. The rat wasn’t particularly sexy or foul-mouthed. He merely entertained his audience with two brief scenes of scurrying around a laboratory benchtop, occasionally craning up to explore the contents of a tissue-box. In the first scene, he trailed a useless pair of hind legs behind him. In the second, taken twelve weeks later, the hind legs were moving. What made this rat so hot was the treatment he had received in between: a shot in the spine of human embryonic stem cells. The first years of the new millennium witnessed heated debate about how to regulate research on human embryonic stem cells. Around the world, in an effort to convince lawmakers, researchers paraded promising findings in front of them, like so many modern-day Columbuses beseeching the court to allow them to explore the new world. There was research showing that embryonic stem cells could improve the symptoms of diabetic rats or help rats with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But this video, showing they could reverse the paralysis of a crippled rat, was the most dramatic and graphic exhibit in the arsenal. It was also the most controversial. …

Most lay people (and many scientists) were totally befuddled by the goings-on. The debate was so arcane. Were embryonic germ stem cells the same as embryonic stem cells? Could adult stem cells do the same thing? Was the rat really cured? Did it mean anything for people? Eighteen months on, with the dust from the fracas somewhat settled, one might ask what the rabblerousing rat video really showed about the potential of human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal injury. Indeed, what is the potential of any embryonic stem cell therapy for spinal injury, long held to be the most intractable of human injuries?

You can order a copy of Stem Cells from the ABC Books website.