Can Stem Cells be Beautiful?

The question is: Is there art in science? Some say that science and medicine have nothing to do with art and others say that science requires no creativity at all!

We believe that this is not the case and that with stem cells creativity is alive and well, but as with all new fields of medicine it is struggling to reach the audience that needs to know about it. That is patients, press and professional surgeons and doctors and schoolchildren and students. So if you have the disposition to write something creative and invoke feelings of passion or to spark the imagination of others please send in your submission and help show that there is art and humanity in science and medicine. To help with this we have put together this short :

History of Stem Cells

An early example of stem cells was the mythological story of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and brought it to men. He was chained to a rock and every day a large bird ate his liver. During the night it regenerated and the next day the giant bird ate it again. And so on, and so on a bit like a rather unpleasant ground hog day. A further example from mythology is the 2nd day of the 12 Labours of Hercules. He had to kill the many-headed Hydra of Lerna. It breathed fire, had poisonous breath and had many heads. Every time one was cut off two more grew in its place. It was already apparent that there was two sides to the stem cell coin. There is also the legend of the phoenix , a mythical bird that was engulfed in flames only to rise from the ashes unharmed, a classical story of rebirth.

Auscalapius was the Greek god of medicine, and a son of Zeus. He was taught medicine by his uncle Chiron, a centaur which was half horse/half man. There were snakes which shed snake skins in the Temple of Auscalpius, and the staff and twined serpents as a symbol of medicine ( a caduceus) comes from this. It was in one of these temples or centres of learning that Hippocrates the Father of Medicine studied. Snakes however cannot re-grow other tissues or organs. Their powers of regeneration are limited largely to their skins, although the Greeks did not know this.

Starfish (enichoderms) and salamanders re-grow limbs and many amphibians, lizards and geckos also re-grow body parts. To my knowledge none of them use embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells to do this. They use adult stem cells. Teleost fish, notably zebra fish, can regenerate hearts, scales, fins, liver, pancreas, etc. Today they are often used as a laboratory model for cellular and molecular biology and over 80% of their genome has been sequenced. Birds regenerate parts of the ear and neurons in the brain (CNS or central nervous system). Salamanders re-grow complete limbs in 30 days. If you chop a flatworm into 30 parts, you get thirty new worms. The ability to re-grow organs and limbs is very common and the variety of tissues and organs re-grown looks promising if we could learn how to do it.

And for the science and medicine students: Aristotle (lizards) knew about organ regeneration as did Lazzaro Spallazani (tadpoles, planarians, snails), Voltaire (snails), Charles Darwin (salamanders) and Thomas Hunt Morgan (fish and earthworms). Morgan discovered chromosomes in drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies) and received the first nobel prize in genetics in 1933.

In spite of our limited regenerative capacity, healing of small wounds and liver regeneration, humans live longer than many of the above, and we start out well. Human babies heal much more quickly than human adults, but as we age our capacity for tissue repair declines and so does the number of our stem cells. Surgeons often remark on this. The number of stem cells is much less in an adult human than in a neonate. Our white cells and our capacity to fight infections also declines with age and as we age we accumulate damage in our cells and genes that can lead to cancer. Of course this is not nice so we become grumpy and nasty and this causes stress, hypertension and insomnia and we need to swallow more and more pills as we get older.

These of course are expensive and cause side-effects. We end up poor and our children get really, really pissed-off. We ingest more and more antibiotics to help fight infections which plays havoc with our already wobbly bowel movements, and it is just as well we cannot sleep as we have to stay awake most of the night anyway. Death begins to look like a good option and our children are beginning to encourage this. If you have a 2nd or 3rd wife she is also recommending this. Life has caught up with you and the Grim Reeper is already sharpening his scythe.

So stem cells are not really about living forever. They are about quality of life and affordable treatments, even cures. They are about sustainable regeneration and the minimalization of scar tissue and accumulative damage to tissues and cells.

In more recent times Marvel Comic Heroes like Wolverine and the Incredible Hulk can also heal quickly and regenerate tissues and organs. The Hulk does this when he gets very angry. So could vampires, like those in the recent teen cult movies, who seem to have had a need for CD34+ haemopoietic stem cells, and of course the Highlander could not only regenerate and heal but actually lived forever. Are we just unlucky? Where does the truth lie?

I mean, it certainly does not lie in the marvel comics and movies. But why couldn't we have been born like a salamander or a teleost fish? Even a snake looks good if you have dermatitis. Could we have it all? Could we afford it? Could we fight degenerative diseases like Alzheimers or Parkinsons, and could we prevent inevitable progression of ischaemic cardiac disease into congestive heart failure? Could we stop the bloody arthritis pain that keeps us awake at night and prevents us from knitting and sewing, or doing woodwork and welding?

Could we stop macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in elderly patients, or is slow loss of eyesight inevitable? Could we actually cure disease without becoming hooked on addictive and expensive, symptomatic medication? Could we remain reasonably healthy and retain some financial legacy for our children, or spend it on a World Cruise instead of propping up a failing pharmaceutical company, an ungrateful family and a local doctor with a new diagnostic device or biologic treatment?

The answer to all these questions is increasingly YES. And that is why you are reading this: To learn how to swim like a zebra fish, leap like a young frog and regenerate like a salamander.

We are looking for poetry and paintings about stem cells. What I initially thought was a frog in a super hero costume, a green bulky,make that Hulky, salamander, a high jumping frog with crutches at the side, old people/animals doing wild things like pole vaulting, planting a flag on top of Everest or cycling a tandem with their children. Old persons shooting a rapid at Victoria or Niagra Falls . A protest march with banners like, No retirement before 85, More cycling lanes for the elderly, Free condoms for the over 90's.

Or maybe something more mature, more scientifically and medically correct. Or something more abstract, maybe a sunrise or an eclipse seen from another planet, or a painting of the ancient world with hydrozoans, enichoderms, jellyfish and hydra, all of which have extensive tissue regenerative capacity. Maybe something more conservative that suggests the possibilities, not yet reached. Maybe you wish to write about the balancing act between what can be done now and what the hopes are for the future.

What about the need of chronically sick children and the darker side of things, the opportunity seen by some to exploit emotionally vulnerable parents. The balance between patient need and patient protection and the compassion which must underlie ethics. Stem cells is a topic with many facets. You could see it as part of evolution, an evolution instead of a revolution in medicine: An extra weapon in the fight against disease. You could see this as inevitable, an opportunity missed 100's of years ago. Or maybe it is a step backwards towards non-specific medicines? Possibly you think embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cell and manufactured, allogeneic progenitor cells are the future? They are certainly a very important part of it.

Write it or paint it. Create your own statement, write your own copy or paint your own picture. You have the chance to make your voice heard. It is your choice, it is your opportunity.