The Holy Grail of Medicine: On the Mystery and Power of Stem Cells

StemCellDilemmaCover.bmp You do ill if you praise, but worse if you censure, what you do not understand. --Leonardo da Vinci

Exactly how Richard Dalton, royal librarian for "Mad King" George III, made his startling discovery of the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci isn't known. What is known is that one day, around the time of the American Revolution, while removing the contents of a chest hidden away in Kensington Palace, Dalton uncovered hundreds of exquisite drawings by the Renaissance artist. Many drawings were of the human body -- of muscle and bone, lungs and hearts, legs and arms, sex organs and even fetuses in their maternal pod. Leonardo was known as much as an anatomist as a painter and an engineer, but until these drawings came to light, most of the tangible evidence was missing.

Worth many billions of dollars, Leonardo's drawings are considered the most prized holdings of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Yet their significance is priceless. Perhaps more than any other artifact, the anatomical drawings mark the end of the old world order and the beginning of the new. In the millennium between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance, the knowledge of nature existed in a largely fixed state. There was no place for curiosity in the lockdown mind-set of the Middle Ages. Then came the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman culture and the call for reform; the rise of technology and science and printing as well as international trade; the exploration overland and overseas; the expansion of art; and, perhaps above all, the heretical but irresistible hunger for human progress. The Renaissance marked the passage of a world influenced by things unseen to a world influenced by things seen and understood through careful observation. Things like the human body.

Dalton's unveiling of Leonardo's anatomical drawings liberated a vital energy stored in the artist's compositions, an energy that continues to spur the human drive to discover. Never before had the body been subjected to such powerful examination. Never before had the particulars of what we are made of and how we work been rendered in such detail: how we breathe, how we move, how we sense our world, how we nourish and repair and re-create ourselves.

It is a curious quirk of history that these magnificent works of corporeal art should find their way to Windsor Castle. If you look out the windows of the Royal Library, you see Windsor Great Park, the site of sylvan reverie for the ancient Celtic people. Here, the Druids dreamed of everlasting life in a land called Tir Nan Og, where pain, disease, and decay did not exist. Tir Nan Og, the Land of Forever Young, was the Celtic expression of a universal theme in mythology, a dream that flows through all cultures and most religions: a dream of immortality through regeneration. Little did they dream, so long ago, that one day the name of their mythical land of eternal youth would reappear in a scientific and medical quest to extend life.

The ancient Celtic world of regeneration and Leonardo's legacy of scientific investigation during the Renaissance have converged in a new biology in the 21st century. The leading edge of this new biology, this biorenaissance, and the object of its exploration, is the most important element of all life: the cell. But not just any cell. More and more, modern science and medicine is and will be the province of the stem cell. Day by day, researchers are unveiling the mystery of the stem cell and its power for regenerating tissue that is healthy and repairing tissue that is diseased or damaged.

Stem cells are proving to be the silver bullet, the Holy Grail of medicine. They could alleviate all manner of suffering, whether it's caused by disease, injury, or genetic fate. Different stem cells possess different powers. Embryonic stem cells, for instance, have the capacity to re-create and repair any of the body's tissues and organs. Scientists often call these cells the "gold standard" of stem cell research. Adult stem cells, like those present in bone marrow, have the potential to repair some tissues and organs, but not all. Skin cells and other types of mature cells can now be genetically reprogrammed into stem cells that have many of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. There may come a day when you go to a clinic, have some blood drawn, and have the white cells in your blood specimen reprogrammed and used to form your future stem cell tissue repair bank. If recent scientific advances are confirmed and extended, it is possible to imagine that your "personalized" banked cells will be able to repair your tissues and organs. You wouldn't have to worry about your body rejecting the cells because, after all, they are your own. One of the biggest challenges will be to make cell processing for therapies, which today can be expensive and must be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generally affordable.

Presented by

Leo Furcht & William Hoffman

Leo T. Furcht is chairman of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. William Hoffman has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years.

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