History is replete with stories (many undocumented) of transplants and other medical miracles dating from a time when the biological “cell” wasn’t even a concept, much less part of anyone’s vocabulary. In this chapter, we recap three separate but intertwined histories of research into how living things work. One is the history of ideas about regeneration, the ability to regrow body parts that are damaged through injury or disease.
Another is the history of discovering how certain traits are passed from one generation to the next and decoding the inner workings of cells. The third is the history of medical advances since the 1950s, when new knowledge and surgical methods sparked an explosion of now-commonplace procedures like organ transplants and fertility treatments. All these ideas and concepts played a role in leading stem cell research to its status today. In fact, all of them have a role in directing today’s research toward a variety of potential future uses, such as growing organs and tissues for transplant.
In some ways, stem cell science represents a whole new world for medicine. Although scientists still have much more to discover, we know more than ever before about how the human body works, how cells and tissues and organs work together, and what goes wrong in disease. Forty years after Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon, we’re on the brink of another giant leap for mankind — only this time the new frontier is under a microscope instead of beyond the clouds. Like most frontiers, stem cell territory is fraught with unfamiliar sights, unanticipated perils, wrong turns, dead ends, and misadventures of all kinds. In an interview with TIME magazine, Owen Witte, director of UCLA’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, said, “Biology is more complicated than splitting the atom” because stem cell researchers have to figure out how to create the outcomes they’re seeking and how to measure the results at the same time. Then there are the ethical considerations of stem cell research. For centuries, scientists have been portrayed in fiction and fable as doing things because they can do them and ignoring the question of whether they should do them — a perception unfortunately cemented by a few highly publicized real-life scandals. The New York Times reported in 2007 that James Thomson, whose team first isolated human embryonic stem cells, thinks the controversial aspects of the research may have kept talented scientists away from the stem cell field. In real life, most scientists and physicians are highly ethical people who would never consider creating a modern-day Frankenstein or resurrecting a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Most of these professionals shun the notoriety that comes with controversy, and few 21st-century scientific endeavors are more controversial than stem cell research.