History of Stem Cell Research

The history of stem cell research is littered with some fantastic achievements in the face of massive adversity. To trace this rich, yet diverse, history, we need to go back to the late 19th century when scientists first discovered that some cells could differentiate themselves into a variety of cells in the body and could perform different functions when implanted into different areas of the body.

The term "stem cell" was adopted for such cells, which could transform into various types of cells, in 1908 at the congress of hematologic society in Berlin. Russian histologist Alexander Maksimov proposed the term, perhaps after noting that the stem of a tree gives rise to a variety of branches.

By this time scientists had realized that there were specific types of cells that were the building blocks of life and had the ability to transform themselves into different types of cells during the development of the fetus.

It was only in the 1960s that scientists began to recognize the potential present in these stem cells when McCulloch and Till were able to demonstrate the presence of self-renewing cells in mouse bone marrow. It was also during this decade that Joseph Altman and Gopal Das showed that adult neurogenesis was possible through stem cell activity in the brain.

The focus of stem cell research has basically been on bone marrow transplants adult stem cells. Such transplants were tried out in a variety of ways to mainly treat anemia and leukemia. In 1968 a bone marrow transplant was successful in two siblings with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

This opened up a huge area of research for the medical fraternity and predictably stem cell research received a massive boost.

Stem cells were discovered in human cord blood in 1978 further strengthening the belief that they may hold the key to organogenesis. The term "Embryonic Stem Cell" was coined in 1981 by Gail Martin when a research team was able to derive mouse embryonic stem cells from an inner cell mass. It was in 1997 that cancer stem cells were discovered when leukemia was shown to develop directly from a haematopoietic stem cell.

1998 was a red letter year in the history of stem cell research as James Thomson and coworkers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were able to derive the first human embryonic stem cell line

Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology made history in 2001 when they cloned four- to six-cell stage human embryos for generating embryonic stem cells. In 2006, Scientists at Newcastle University in England created the first ever artificial liver cells using umbilical cord blood stem cells.

In recent years, scientists have managed to make rapid strides in stem cell research. This included research from Japan, which showed that stem cells can be generated from skin cells as well as the creation of the first human embryonic stem cells without destruction of the embryo. The latter was the work of Robert Lanza and colleagues at Advanced Cell Technology and UCSF

The history of stem cell research makes for fascinating reading. But while all these achievements may seem to be massive, one just gets the feeling that the best is yet to come.


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