Brief History of Stem Cells

We think of stem cells as a recent discovery. It was actually in the year 1908 that the Russian  histologist Alexander Maksimov  (1874–1928) proposed the use of the term “stem cell” at a hematologic society congress held right here in Germany, in Berlin.  He crafted this term to help describe something he had observed about blood; namely that all blood cells develop from a common precursor cell. But, like many developments in medicine, there was a great lag time between the discovery of stem cells and sufficient acceptance to spurn on additional exploration of their nature and possible medical uses.

All told, things got really going during the 1950s and 1960s with research that focused on bone marrow stem cells.

In the 1950s and 1960s almost 200 allogeneic marrow transplants were performed in humans but with no long-term successes. Then, in 1956, Edward Donnall Thomas made history when he injected bone marrow stem cells into a 3 year old leukemia patient that had been harvested from her identical (healthy) twin. The young child did well for six months, but then had a recurrence of her cancer. Continuing his research Dr. Thomas went on to establish bone marrow transplantation as a common procedure in the treatment of cancer and won the Nobel Prize in 1990 for this work. The Nobel committee noted “He was the first to truly develop a completely revolutionary new type of medicine, one that even today is being modified and used to save thousands of lives.”

In the February 1961 issue of “Radiation Research”, Canadians James E. Till, a biophysicist, and Ernest A. McCulloch, a hematologist, published their findings that proved the existence of cells that can self-renew repeatedly AKA “stem cells”. Both worked for the Ontario Cancer Institute (OCI) at the time. This paper has recently been reprinted

In 1968 University of Minnesota doctors became the first in the world to use  bone marrow transplants to cure an infant with X-linked lymphopenic immune deficiency and another with Wishkott-Aldrich syndrome.

And in 1969, on the heels of years of work on histocompatibility and the development of antibiotics that inhibit transplant infections, Edward Donnall Thomas performed the first successful allogenic bone marrow transplant.

Bone marrow transplantation, of course, proved a powerful way to turn the tables on leukemia, and was also eventually employed to successfully combat a multitude of other. Discoveries in stem cell science moved at a fairly rapid clip beginning in the 1970s. I will quickly touch on some of the highlights plus my work with umbilical cord stem cells abroad before focusing attention back on the biological and clinical treasure-trove which is bone marrow.

  • In 1978 stem cells were discovered in human umbilical cord blood.
  • In 1981 the very first in vitro stem cell line was developed from mice.
  • In 1988 embryonic stem cell lines were derived from a hamster and in 1995 the very first embryonic stem cell line was created from a primate
  • In 1997, a lamb was cloned from stem cells and dubbed “Dolly”.
  • In 1997 the origins of leukemia was traced to defects in hematopoietic stem cells or cancer stem cells.
  • In 1998, James A. Thompson at the University of Wisconsin isolated cells from the inner cell mass of early human embryos and developed the first embryonic stem cell lines. During the same year, John D. Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University, derived germ cells from cells in fetal gonad tissue.
  • And in 2006, researchers successfully “reprogrammed” or transformed somatic cells into a stem cell-like state. This new type of stem cell was subsequently called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSCs).