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Dreams and Due Diligence: Till &…

Dreams and Due Diligence: Till & McCulloch's Stem Cell Discovery and…

by Joe Sornberger

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1998. The year embryonic stem cells were discovered in humans and the year scientists made it possible to grow human stem cells in cell culture. For the scientific community, this was the start of what was to become a landslide of mainstream stem cell research news to inundate the lay person and make stem cell research news front and center in newspapers and news broadcasts, not just relegated to the audience of peer review journals and scientific symposiums. For the average man-on-the-street individual, this was groundbreaking, unheard of news. The laborious steps that helped to set the protocols and pave the way for this groundbreaking research, still relegated to the dustbin as unimportant.

Swing back in time to a Sunday afternoon in 1960 where on the 6th floor of the Ontario Cancer Institute, better known as the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Ernest Armstrong McCulloch detected 'bumps' on the spleens of research mice that had received bone marrow injections. Working with his colleague, James Edgar Till, the two further examined the 'bumps' and then wrote a research paper published February 1961 in a niche academic journal called Radiation Research that would stand the test of time reporting the discovery of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells. Till and McCulloch went on to publish three more research papers: 1963 paper demonstrating the clonal nature of spleen colonies and a second paper that same year explaining the distribution of the colony-forming cells in spleen colonies followed by a 1964 paper on the stochastic (sporatic) model of stem cell proliferation, creating the intellectual framework of stem cell biology that continues to be used by researchers today.

Sornberger's examination of the field of stem cell research over the past 50 years - from Till and McCulloch's original discovery through to the 2011 publication date of this book - and his interviews with many of the scientists that have revolutionized the field of cellular research and regenerative medicine is a fascinating read, if this kind of scientific research catches your attention. It does for me. Beyond the 'walk through time' approach to presenting the stem cell research discoveries to date, I really appreciated the balanced approach Sornberger took in the chapter focused on the very heated topic of the morals and ethics of stem cell research. To quote Sornberger:

People often forget that stem cells are used in medical practice on a daily basis. Every time a bone marrow transplant succeeds in saving a cancer patient's life, it is thanks to the hematopoietic stem cells that rebuilt the blood supply to fight off the leukemia. Cloning? In its simplest terms, it just means making a number of identical cells from a single one. The human body does it every day.

There are just too many amazing scientists and scientific breakthroughs to name here without delving into attention-grabbing name-dropping. While the book started off as another one of those 'why don't Canadian researchers get the attention they deserve' kind of publications, I like how comprehensive Sornberger was in including the ripple effect of stem cell scientific advancements that have occurred over the decades - developments that have piggybacked on the work of previous developments to get the field where it is today and to give it the momentum, and solid foundational grounding to continue to move forward into tomorrow. Sornberger states this best:

Till and McCullouch figured out how the first key pieces fit together in the gigantic jigsaw puzzle that is stem cell science. Others have since added, and continue to add, connecting pieces. The big picture, however, is still far from clear. Old frustrations, such as the early failures in bone marrow transplantation, have given way to new ones, such as the inability to do more transplants for more people.

The field of stem cell research is a fascinating one that will continue to attract my interest as new research unfolds. This book was a great primer to get up to speed on the developments to date and where the scientists behind this breakthrough research see us heading in the future. ( )
2 vote lkernagh | Sep 16, 2012 |
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Chronicles the work of Ernest Armstrong McCulloch and James Edgar Till--the two Canadian researchers who proved the existence of stem cells.

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