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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Holger Maehle

Historicizing Stem Cell Research: the emergence of the stem cell concept around 1900

Over the past ten years an international discourse on the medical, ethical, religious, social and legal implications of stem cell research has developed. Surprisingly, however, and in contrast to other publicly debated issues in biomedicine, the history of this research area has remained almost entirely unexplored. Discussions on stem cell research usually take the year 1998 as their point of departure - when the research groups of James Thomson and John Gearhart reported the first successful isolations of human pluripotent stem cell lines from donated IVF embryos and aborted embryos, respectively ( i.e. cell lines that can differentiate into various tissues). It is virtually unknown in the public discourse that a first animal model for the isolation of blood-forming stem cells had already been developed by Ernest McCulloch and James Till in the early 1960s during radiation and cancer research in Canada; and that the notion of a 'stem cell' goes back to the controversial German zoologist and Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Appropriate historical understanding, however, of how the field of stem cell research developed should be required of any well-informed participant in the current debates. This 3-month project is the first step towards a larger, interdisciplinary research programme on the history of stem cell research. In this initial project Professor Maehle intends to demonstrate how the origins of the modern, 'dual' research strands of embryonic and adult stem cell research unfolded between the 1870s and World War I, when the concept of stem cells was elaborated in studies of comparative embryology and of the blood-forming system.

To find out more about Professor Maehle please visit his home page on the Department of Philosophy's website: