In 1955, Jonas Salk made headlines with the first polio vaccine. In 1960, he made headlines again when he opened the doors to his dream-project, a 26-acre research facility with no interior supporting walls and architecture worthy of a visit from Pablo Picasso.
He was constantly asking, "What's next?" and encouraged those around him to do the same. He said we should all act as wise ancestors and always be thinking about what we're doing today because of the consequences it will have on future generations. This forward thinking pervades the Institute culture today.
Divided into rough thirds, labs at the Salk Institute explore answers to questions around healthy aging. One set of labs studies how plants respond to light, heat and stress, so they might find a better way to feed the population. Another lab dedicates its time to cancer and the factors that affect its growth, and the third set conducts research around the nature of human consciousness.
Attendees of The Atlantic Meets the Pacific chose between four lab tours, one of which afforded time with stem cell researchers. Stem cells are integral to the research of disease because lab technicians can grow them into whatever kind of cell they want, instead of having to rely on patients to volunteer (which is handy when you're studying neurological disease).
At the Salk Institute, scientists create stem cells from samples of human skin by adding four genes to the tissue, a technique discovered four years ago. They then grow brain tissue from these stem cells and study the effects diseases like Parkinson's or schizophrenia have on the brain. They look for patterns in cell behavior, test these patterns and then use their findings to develop drugs that are more effective.
The ability to grow stem cells from skin tissue has revolutionized stem cell research and the conversation around it. It's opened access to more samples and sped up advancements in fields like neurological science where a lack of patient data often limited the options available to labs.
But even with the possibilities it has created, some people still take issue with this method of research because they feel it's in some ways unethical to create or change the nature of cells. Where do you stand? Is stem cell research a vital piece to the puzzle of our future? Or does it cross ethical boundaries that make you uncomfortable?
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