Who Discovered Stem Cells?

Stem cell research has long been a much-debated and highly-controversial scientific field. While there is no apparent controversy with regards to who discovered stem cells, many scientists through the years have contributed to the development of the study that it would appear difficult to credit a single person for the discovery. One would have to choose between those who first suggested their existence and those who were able to prove it.

It was a Russian histologist named Alexander Maksimov who, in 1908, first put forward the existence of the stem cell (and coming up with the term himself) as part of his theory of haematopoiesis. According to Maksimov’s hypothesis, all cellular blood components were derived from haematopoietic stem cells. However, there had been no major developments in the field of stem cell research for some 60 years after Maksimov’s theory was proposed.

It was in the 1960’s that Joseph Altman and Gopal Das presented scientific proof of constant stem cell activity in the brain, but their findings were disregarded for the most part as they were at odds with the “no new neurons” doctrine held by Spanish histologist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. It was in 1963 when two scientists from Canada, James E. Till and Ernest A. McCulloch, demonstrated the existence of self-renewing cells found I the bone marrow of mice. Till and McCulloch could then be credited for being the men who discovered stem cells, or at least produced evidence that they exist.

The discoveries of Till and McCulloch would play a significant part in pushing stem cell research forward. More progress in the field would be made due to the efforts of researchers who discovered stem cells’ properties and applications. In 1968, a successful bone marrow transplant is conducted on two siblings afflicted with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). In 1978, the presence of haematopoietic stem cells is discovered in human cord blood cells. It was in 1981 when scientists Martin Evans, Matthew Kaufman and Gail R. Martin were able to derive embryonic stem cells (this term is attributed to Martin) out of the inner cell mass of a mouse’s blastocyst. A link between Leukemia and haematopoietic stem cells (from where the illness appears to originate) is established in 1997. And in 1998, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by James Thomson, were the first to derive human embryonic stem cells. More discoveries have been made and are being made since.

Although Maksimov was the one who first named and postulated the presence of the stem cell, it is Till and McCulloch who discovered stem cells do indeed exist and it is their findings that has since paved the way for later scientists to make their own discoveries in this area of research. Certainly, the continued progress of stem cell research would ultimately prove beneficial in many ways, particularly to human health. On the downside, it faces opposition from those who believe that that destroying human embryos to derive stem cells is no different from destroying a fully-formed living human being. To be fair, both sides of the argument do have their valid points. Until the controversy is clarified, the continuing efforts of stem cell researchers would remain somewhat stalled.

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