Hearts and Hope

  This week, courtesy of NPR, I had occasion to listen to a fascinating program about stem cells on Speaking of Faith.  Host Krista Tippett visited the regeneration lab of Fr. Doris Tayor at the University of Minnesota.

  Problem with organ transplants is rejection.  Patient has to take powerful drugs for life to avoid a new heart from making an Alien-like exit.  Ms Taylor is working on a method to build a new heart out of one’s own cells. 

  Not yet in human trials, she starts with a heart from a rat cadaver and washes out all cells leaving an interstitial “scaffold”.  Then she uses stem cells to build a new heart upon that structure.  Below you can watch a video showing steps in the process culminating in a new beating heart!*

   Speaking of Alien: the video reminded me of the horrible part of Alien Resurrection where Ripley stumbles upon a lab filled with disturbing experiments with/on humanoids eerily similar in presentation to Dr. Taylor’s rat hearts in beakers.

  For her part, Taylor says she wouldn’t undertake anything she wouldn’t do on her mother.  People tell her that “she isn’t building hearts, she’s building hope”.  “The universe has given me tools: I’m going to use those tools.”  Progress is a series of discoveries.  When ill, our ancestors chewed on willow bark which we now use in the form of aspirin.

  Marveling over the beauty of the natural architecture of a heart with Dr Taylor, moderator Tippett said that “One of the things that I’ve been fascinated in… with scientists in general is how scientists have such a regard for beauty”.  Reminded me of a post far above in which I discuss nuclear weapon development by scientists eager to push forward savoring the “sweet technological problems…” 

  I’m all for progress and favor stem cell research, but I’m beginning to disagree with Keats’ famous lines from Ode to a Grecian Urn

Beauty is truth, truth beauty.  That is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know 

  This here universe is a whole lot more complicated than that.   Billowing cumulus might be beautiful, but so is a mushroom cloud.  Taylor indeed does give us hope.  We can make ourselves sick (physically or metaphorically), but we can also make ourselves well.

  All parts of our bodies are continually regenerating and the stem cells do the work.  Taylor calls it “endogenous repair, internal repair”.  Ageing of tissues and bodies is the failure of stem cells.  Stress ages stem cells by a known process. Decrease stress increase the life of a cell and a body.

  “… there’s a spiritual component to all of this” Taylor says.  “What we think impacts who we are.  She recruited well known Tibetan Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard and measured stem cells in his blood before and after a meditation session.  “What we found was a huge increase in the number of positive stem cells in blood.”

  In an unrelated study of the neurological correlates of happiness at the University of Wisconsin – Madison Ricard was subjected to an extensive  examination with hundreds of sensors affixed to his noggin for a three hour ride in an MRI.  He was so far outside normal parameters that he was dubbed the “happiest man on earth”.  Wonder what he knows.

*Interestingly (but I guess not surprisingly), process sounds very much like morphogenetic architecture in which a pattern or process is observed in nature, algorithms developed, computer let loose, and voila: an, uh, as yet unbuilt research lab for the Santa Fe Institute designed by son and friends.

Andrew Surface 1


** For the complete interview and more video go to:http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/stem-cells/

One Response to “Hearts and Hope”

  1. andrew Says:

    That is really interesting, the relationship between that project I worked on and stem cells is very similar. Both projects start out with “dumb” building block agents, and these agents are given parameters which determine their form. For the stem cells I cannot speak in much detail on what the parameters monitoring their growth are but I can imagine they are some kind of growth hormones or dna manipulation. And for my project it was things like site, program, and materiality. Both projects begin with basic building blocks and end in unique site specific forms.

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