A Love Letter to Stem Cells

14 February 2013 by Nsikan Akpan, posted in TBS Journal Club

Instead of writing a love letter to an ex, I wrote one to stem cells.

My Dearest Stem Cells,

When we first met in 2004, I couldn’t stand you. I was 18, a college junior, and finally learning to question the common scientific rhetoric, a rite of passage for becoming an “adult scientist”. You let the press and politicians make so much fuss about taking you from embryos, at a time when we knew so little about you. You stood by idly, while they said you could cure every disease ever, so you became the target of my derision.

Take your exploits with Alzheimer’s diseaseGN1 for example. You wanted to just waltz into the toxic battlefield that is the Alzheimer’s brain—filled with its landmines of amyloid protein—and rectify oblivion. Like it so easy to restore a person’s memories, built from a lifetime of intricate connections between neurons. Plus these cells are lost throughout the brain, not just in the memory centers. It’s more than you could ever handle, and yet you flirted with the emotions of those who suffer from this tragic disease.

But while you frustrated me to no end, I found you irresistible. You were a mysterious “jack-of-all-trades”, and given the right setting, you could morph into anything—a heart cell, some skin, a taste bud—whatever you wanted. I thought why limit yourself to curing disease, when you hold the knowledge to how a single cell becomes a complex organism. Why champion yourself as “the ultimate panacea”, when you can unlock the secrets to “being human”.

Plus you live in the coolest apartment, which you cutely coined “your niche”. It’s a bare and harsh environ that in some ways resembles primordial Earth, with its low oxygen levels and unique composition of metabolites.  Yet its decor is perfectly suited for your needs. It’s your fortress of solitude, where you feel free to perpetuate, seemingly forever in endless comfort. That is until you feel compelled to leave and slip on one of your many masks.

Then in 2006, you surprised me. Scientists learned how to take a skin cell and change it back into you—a beautiful, versatile stem cell. Finally, I could see your destiny in medicine. Countless scenarios emerged where patients could heal themselves with their own reprogrammed stem cells, such as with genetic diseases in the heart or lungs or spine.

Maybe I was always wrong to doubt you in the first place. Perhaps like an onlooker in Kitty Hawk saying man will never fly, my vision was shortsighted. Some say that 2013 will be our year, to which I am uncertain. But our future certainly looks bright.

Truly yours,

 Nsikan

P.S. Check out a couple of stories (1 & 2) on stem cells that I recently wrote for The Scientist Magazine.

Geek Notes (for the scientists):

GN1 “Take your forays with Alzheimer’s disease”…It’s complete bunk to think that stem cells could repair Alzheimer’s, but they do hold significant promise for other nerve diseases—like macular blindness or some spinal diseases—where there is a smaller, concentrated area of injury.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is another favorable arena for stem cell therapy, given the damage is limited to a concrete population of motor neurons housed in the brain’s striatum. However, any claims for a cure that you see in the news should be read with a grain of salt.

Early clinical trials for PD have yielded positive but temporary fixes, suggesting that like with Alzheimer’s, scientists must uncover why the Parkinson’s brain is so toxic to these motor neurons, before trying to replace them with stem cells.


5 Responses to “A Love Letter to Stem Cells”

  1. Beth Reply | Permalink

    This is so fun... thank you!

  2. Michele Tyler Reply | Permalink

    Adult stems cells from your own fat is the true secret weapon. Fat, that spare tire many carry around, hold the secret to regeneration. Fat is the richest source of adult stem cells that can be used in many applications. We have seen amazing results in the area of cosmetic applications since 2009 and are expanding into trials that will consist of joint repair, MS, diabetes and several more. Adult stem cell application and PRP holds much promise to END, not manage disease processes. Thank you for your love letter. The body holds everything it needs to repair itself and we are just on the brink of understanding how these cells can change people's lives and medicine as we know it.

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