photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association
Oftentimes we hear from guests after a show has been released. But, it’s always by way of a direct email to one of our producers or to Krista herself. So, imagine my surprise this past Saturday when I saw this awfully gracious submission to our show on stem cells from the centering voice of that conversation, Dr. Doris Taylor herself:
"Being on your show has significantly impacted what I do and how I do it.
It forced me to think about my truths in a different way, and connected me with people who otherwise I would not have known — who in some way seem touched by our work. That is a humbling experience when it happens once or twice, but, when it happens over and over, it is life changing…
I remain grateful for your willingness to share yourself and make it possible for people like me to do likewise. Thank you Krista.”
I also used my reply to her as an opportunity to follow up with a question several listeners have wondered about: the recent news of the first human embryonic stem cell line created at the University of Michigan. Her response:
"I fully believe getting enough cells will be the rate-limiting step to building organs. Think about it, the human heart has hundreds of billions of cells in it. Having to grow those in the lab is daunting. But as they say, if it were easy, someone else would have done it."
On Stem Cells and Untold Stories: When Nature’s Tools Provide the Answers
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.
Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.
From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.
The newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.
She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.
But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.
From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”
Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.
Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.
Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.
All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.
In the Room, with Doris Taylor Trent Gilliss, online editor
Unfortunately, one of Krista’s recent interviews wasn’t available for viewing by the time "Stem Cells, Untold Stories" was available for download and broadcast. I say unfortunate because it’s a rare opportunity when Krista is able to interview a guest in our home studios at Minnesota Public Radio — and we’re able to film it and then make it accessible.
After tweaking our encoding specification so that it would properly upload to our video vendor, it’s finally available and wanted to make you aware of it. For those of you who struggle with the limits and the priorities of stem cell research and its outcomes, I highly recommend watching Dr. Taylor talk about her own research and ethical understanding. If nothing else, you’re able to see the passion she conveys when she talks about human physiology and the body’s ability to regenerate and adapt.
Life in Doris Taylor’s Lab Andy Dayton, associate web producer
After watching Krista’s interview with Doris Taylor, it was hard not to want to see her lab in person. Krista referenced Laurie Zoloth’s phrase “fiction science” during her conversation with Taylor and many of the the mental images that resulted — decellularized “ghost hearts,” cells beating in a dish, rows of pumping regenerated rat hearts — seemed to fit into that category.
So, I was excited to see how those images would hold up when we made a trip Taylor’s lab several months after the interview. While we didn’t didn’t see rows and rows of beating hearts, in the video above, we did see a singular regenerated rat heart beat in an apparatus Taylor called a bioreactor, and a moment later we also heard the story of the man with an incurable heart disease who told her that she was “building hope.”
And, in this video, we also saw the magnified image of beating heart cells as Taylor explained why “cells alone don’t make a heart” and Krista handling animal organs with their cells removed as she discussed the “surprising beauty” of the heart with Taylor (see video below).
And while the fiction science elements of her lab were fascinating, it was most engaging to see Taylor’s energy and passion come out while she was clearly in her element. Her perspective helped keep what might sound like a Mary Shelley-inspired experience focused on the aspect of her work she seems to be most interested in — life.
The Timeliness of Telomeres Marc Sanchez, associate producer
The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded this week to Dr. Elizabeth A. Blackburn, Dr. Carol W. Greider, and Dr. Jack D. Szostak. Their work in the 1980’s brought to light the importance of telomeres. In the simplest terms, telomeres live at the ends of our chromosomes, and up until the time of this research, nobody really knew what they were for. Their work shows how telomeres protect our chromosomes, so that during cell division our DNA can be precisely copied from one cell to the next.
Our staff was introduced to telomeres a few weeks ago when Krista interviewed Dr. Doris Taylor. Taylor has gained notoriety recently for her work studying stem cells and "building" hearts. We’re hard at work getting the full interview ready to air in a couple weeks, but here’s an excerpt of that interview in which she talks about stress, stem cells, and telomeres.