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No. 2108:
Adult Stem Cells

John H. Lienhard presents guest David Bonner

Today, Dr. David Bonner of Regenetech wonders if a person will ever grow a new arm. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

For thousands of years we've been puzzled by the fact that salamanders can regenerate limbs, and humans can't.

In the 1960's two Canadian scientists -- McCullough and Till -- discovered that living tissue stemmed from a single cell -- what we now call a stem cell. After their discoveries, the evidence began to build. In 1978, stem cells were found in human umbilical cord blood. Neural (or nerve tissue) stem cells were also discovered.

Work progressed all around the world; and, in 1997, James Thomson found that some cells appeared able to turn themselves into almost any more specialized form of cell. These more specialized cells grew into the different tissues of the human body -- lung, heart, liver, and various blood cells. Thomson found his embryonic stem cells in early-stage human embryos. This has elicited some heated public debate.

But meanwhile, stem cell science has followed a pathway of discovery much like that in other fields. The Soviet analyst of innovation Genrich Altschuller, inventor of the TRIZ innovation method, finds that most great steps forward in technology are made when all the elements for that step exist, and it remains only to integrate them into something new and useful. This happened in the stem cell world in the early part of the 2lst century.

People found adult stem cells in the body and its bloodstream that could do much of what we'd previously thought could only be done by embryonic stem cells. About the same time, NASA had been working on sustaining astronaut life in long space flight. In that program, NASA scientists did a series of experiments in the space shuttle program. They found they could increase the population of adult stem cells from a starting sample in a device known as a bioreactor. Because of that discovery, the bioreactor work continued as part of the space program. 

Medical institutions around the world have now shown that many maladies may be either curable or treatable using adult stem cells derived from the bone marrow of the patient or of a donor with a similar bone marrow type. By extension, we now know that adult stem cells taken from the blood stream can be used if it's possible to produce enough adult stem cells for the treatment. This is where the NASA program results come into play. It offers a potential source of adult stem cells for medical use.

Medical researchers now believe that stem cell research has the potential to change the fundamental approach to many human diseases, because stem cells are the body's own mechanism for self repair. It's too soon to know whether we, salamander-like, can regenerate damaged parts of our own bodies, but adult stem cells dangle that clinical possibility before us. It leaves us wondering what remains for us even to call impossible.

I'm David Bonner, on behalf of the University of Houston, where they're interested in the way inventive minds work. 

(Theme music)

Stem Cells and The Future Of Regenerative Medicine (Paperback) Institute of Medicine (Corporate Author) (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2002).

Essentials of Stem Cell Biology. (eds. Robert Lanza, E. Donnall, James Thomson, Roger Pedersen, John Gearhart, Brigid Hogan, Douglas Melton, Michael West) (Cambridge, MA: Elsevier, Inc. 2005).

For more on adult stem cells see the following web sources:

David Bonner is Chairman & CEO of Regenetech®, Inc., an adult stem cell company. He is also involved in a consulting firm which makes a practice in rapid innovation techniques, including intellectual property and road-mapping. He was formerly Chief Technology Officer at Cabot Corporation and Global Director of Technology at Rohm and Haas Company and has held other executive positions. Dr. Bonner was on the Chemical Engineering faculty at Texas A&M and holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a registered Professional Engineer, has served on several National Academies Committees and Boards, and is currently a member of the NIST Board of Assessment.