To fully understand the history of stem cells, it is important to understand what stem cells are and the important role that they play both in the human body and in the treatment of various diseases and medical conditions.
A stem cell is an undifferentiated cell in the human body. What sets a stem cell apart from other cells is that it is pluripotent. This means that if it is stimulated to develop, it can develop into any type of cell in the human body. This potency is an important tool for scientists to harness. It means that they can potentially replicate millions of bone marrow cells for a patient who is undergoing treatment for leukemia. Likewise, they could also focus on differentiating and developing neural stem cells to treat Parkinson’s Disease, or other neurological conditions. In the last decades, technology has blossomed in this sphere. And, it has opened up a wide range of new treatment options for hundreds of illnesses and diseases.
A Look at the History of Stem Cells
Because of the recent dramatic innovations in stem cell technology, many people believe that stem cells are a relatively new scientific breakthrough. But, quite simply, this is not true. As early as 1868, the term stem cell was used in scientific literature. German biologist Ernst Haeckel used the term, and even though his understanding was not as developed as what today’s scientists know about stem cells, he did understand that stem cells were likely the source of other cells in the body. Not surprisingly, given the nature of biology in the mid-19th century, not all of Haeckel’s assumptions were correct. But, some of his theories and suggestions have proven to be correct.
Haeckel was not the only early biologist who was interested in stem cells and the role that they played in the human body. William Sedgwick also explored the critical role that stem cells could play in growth and regeneration. However, unlike Haeckel, Sedgwick focused on plants and the role that these cells could play in plant regeneration.
Twentieth Century Innovations
The turn of the twentieth century brought about many innovations in biology and medicine; and this included growth in knowledge about stem cells and the important role that they could play in the human body.
The Introduction of Multipotency
One of the most important early 20th century breakthroughs came from Russian scientist Alexader Maximow. Maximow was the first scientist who introduced the concept of multipotency. Multipotency refers to the ability of a cell to differentiate and develop into many different types of cells; this theory stood in dramatic contrast to original scientific thoughts that there were distinct types of cells for each type of tissue. In other words, liver cells would produce more liver cells and lung cells would produce more lung cells. Maximow introduced his multipotency concept in relation to blood cells. But, as scientific research over the last 100 years has shown, multipotency or more commonly pluritpotency applies to all types of stem cells.
Maximow’s research was not the only 20th century scientific breakthrough in terms of stem cells.
Two important breakthroughs happened in the 1950s. First, an American scientist, Leroy Stevens, discovered the concept of pluripotency when exploring cancerous tumors in mice. Pluripotency lies at the source of much of the research into stem cells that is being carried out today. The second breakthrough happened when another scientist attempted the first ever stem cell transplants. Despite a brief period of success, all the recipients of these transplants died. With the benefits of hindsight, scientists were able to see that these poor outcomes were related to a failure to understand how critical it is to match donor and recipient cells and blood types. However, this concept was unheard of in the 1950s.
First Successful Bone Marrow Transplant
Join our Stem Cell Discussion & Information Facebook Group today!
The 1960s also represented a breakthrough decade for research into stem cells. Even though researchers had long suspected the existence of stem cells, this assumption was finally confirmed as part of a test on mice who had been irradiated ad whose bone marrow had been killed off. And, an even more significant discovery happened when Robert Good performed the first successful bone marrow transplant in 1968. By showing that bone marrow transplants could be successful, if correctly matched, Dr. Good radically transformed the way that blood cancers and a host of other medical problems would be treated in the years to come.
More Recent Innovations
Innovations in the sphere of stem cells did not come to a halt in the 1960s. In fact, the pace of innovations and breakthroughs in this sphere has only accelerated.
The Isolation of Embryonic Stem Cells
For example, in 1981, two scientists were able for the first time ever to isolate embryonic stem cells. Because these stem cells are undifferentiated and available in large quantities, they have always been an area of intense interest for research scientists. However, embryonic stem cells have also been highly controversial, prompting concern about what ethical guidelines need to be put in place about harvesting them. These guidelines have resulted in stringent limitations in most countries about how embryonic stem cells can be used.
Another critical innovation happened in 1989 with the introduction of so-called knockout mice. These mice are intentionally bred from stem cells, but they are bred to be missing certain genes. These missing genes make the mice susceptible to a wide range of genetic diseases. When these diseases manifest themselves in the laboratory, scientists are able to explore what type of treatments may be the most effective.
Cancerous Cells and Stem Cells
1997 also marked a breakthrough, particularly in exploring the link between cancerous cells and stem cells. Researchers were able to determine that cancer cells in the body were stem cells that had not grown or multiplied correctly. This information opened up a wide range of new treatment options for cancer patients and gave scientists a new and improved lens into oncological research.
In the Last Twenty Years
Research and innovations have come about at a furious pace in the last twenty years. Some of these innovations have been focused on improving the methods for stem cell transplants; these improved methods have transformed transplants and dramatically improved the survival rate for many transplant recipients. Another important discovery was induced pluripotent cells. Many research scientists believe that these cells could hold the key to a significant amount of cellular therapy.
In addition to scientific advances, it is important to note that there have also been significant political and legislative changes in how stem cells and stem cell treatment have been looked at. For example, the administration of President Obama took a far more liberal approach to stem cell therapy than previous administrations, recognizing that stem cell innovations could offer hope to hundreds and thousands of patients who had not benefitted from standard medical treatment. Yet, liberalization was also accompanied by an increased focus on ensuring that all patients and participants in trials were consenting.
Scientific knowledge continues to advance and each month seems to introduce more and more innovations with stem cells and stem cell therapy. And, many of these advances have translated into improved quality of life for patients with diseases that have previously been untreatable. The number of diseases and conditions that are potentially treatable with stem cells continues to expand. And, at the same time, scientists and politicians are continuing to explore and navigate what should be the ethical parameters of this research.
Learn More About Stem Cell Therapy
Download our FREE Stem Cell Report
Click below to download our free educational report, Stem Cell 101!