The history of stem cells and stem cell therapies presents to humans a unique story of inspiration, and embodies the curiosity with which scientists work to solve the mysteries of the biological world from the eras of basic science discoveries to modern day advanced translational medicine.

The First Age of Stem Cells

The existence of stem cells has been known for a surprisingly long time! Before and during the 1800s, scientists observed, for the first time, the basic units of life called cells under microscopes. Scientists often asked themselves however, where these cells arose from.

In the mid 1800s, a Polish/German doctor named Robert Remak first created the theory that all cells arose from pre-existing cells. Rudolph Virchow, a German doctor often called the "Father of modern pathology" first accepted Remak's work and built upon Theodor Schwann's cell theory, declaring "Omnis cellula e cellula" - all cells arise for pre-existing cells.

The first major step in identification of stem cells came from Russian-American scientist Alexander A. Maximow. Maximow's unitarian theory of hematopoiesis verified that all blood cells developed from a single precursor cell.

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Two early stem cell pioneers - Rudolph Virchow (left) and Alexander A. Maximow (right). Both scientists reinforced the theory that stem cells existed in the body. (Image Citation 1, Image Citation 2)


Biophysicist Dr. James Till and hematologist Ernest McCulloch, almost 50 years after the first isolation and finding of evidence of stem cells. Till and McCulloch were awarded numerous honors for their contribution to stem cell science. (Image Citation 3)


Dr. Martin Evans (left) and Dr. Gail R. Martin (right). Both pioneers, along with Dr. Matthew H. Kaufman (not shown) derived embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos for the first time in 1981. Dr. Evans would later be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his later work with stem cells and knockout mice, which are considered a modern-day necessity for stem cell research. (Image Citation 4, Image Citation 5)


Stem Cell Research Begins To Gain Momentum

After Maximow's theories of stem cell origins were verified, stem cell research began to gain momentum.

1961 - Biophysicst Dr. James Till and haematologist Ernest McCulloch at the Ontario Cancer Institute published (accidental) findings in the journal "Radiation Research" proving the concrete existence of stem cells - the race for innovation begins!

1974 - The 93rd Congress enacted the "National Research Act", establishing the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in order to regulate stem cell research practices.

1975 - The Ethics Advisory Board was established. It is later to be disbanded by President Ronald Reagan.

1981 - Matthew H. Kaufman and Martin Evans at the University of Cambridge and Gail R. Martin in the United States derive embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos, also generating germ-line chimeras from embryo-derived cell lines in 1984, drawing critical acclaim from researchers all over the world. Gail Martin coins the term "embryonic stem cell".

1988 - United States Federal funding of embryo research is approved. It is later vetoed by President George H.W Bush.

1994 - President William (Bill) Clinton repeals an order he initially placed on allowing embryonic research to occur. The next year, federal funding for embryo research is banned.

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The New Age of Stem Cell Research 

Widespread public interest in stem cell research soon ushered in a new age of endeavors.

1998 - James Thomson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, isolated human embryonic stem cells (or hESCs) for the first time, causing a very large spike in interest in stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

These findings also would lead to much public debate, because the method used for isolation of the cells destroyed the embryo.

2001 - President George W. Bush prohibited the federal funding of hESC research for all stem cell lines derived after August 9, 2001.The policy enacted did not apply to state funding.

2004 - Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Bond Act of 2004, passed in California to provide a state-funded facility for stem cell research. Robert Klein lead the efforts, along with support from several significant lawmakers and philanthropists, and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, was founded.

Today, CIRM stands as a multi-billion dollar research organization dedicated to providing funding for the development of treatments and cures which involve stem cell research.

2007 - Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and Dr. James Thomson independently created and published papers on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs in this case were adult skin stem cells coaxed to behave like embryonic stem cells by the use of four different transcription factors.

The discovery of iPSCs was hailed as a revolution in stem cell biology and stem cell engineering, because many of the ethical concerns associated with embryonic stem cell research could not be side-stepped. Dr. Yamanaka and Dr. Thompson were awarded numerous awards for their work.

2009 - President Barack Obama issued an executive order, allowing human stem cell research (specifically embryonic stem cell research) to take place once again in the United States.

After 2009, National Institutes of Health guidelines for stem cell research were set, and so was the stage for innovative stem cell research.

Thus, from its humble beginnings in the 1800s to modern day translational medicine, stem cell science continues to lead the forefront of innovative biomedical research endeavors.

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 Dr. James Thomson, a world-renowned stem cell researcher, was the first scientist to isolate hESCs (human embryonic stem cells). Later, he would also contribute to the discovery of iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells). (Image Citation 6)


Robert Klein stands in front of the CIRM-funded Stem Cell Research building at Stanford University School of Medicine. Klein played a very significant role in the passing of Proposition 71. (Image Citation 7


Dr. Shinya Yamanaka at the Gladstone Institutes. Dr. Yamanaka's work in the creation of iPSCs held great significance - many of the ethical issues associated with embryonic stem cell research could now be side-stepped. (Image Citation 8).

See the video to the left to hear Robert Klein, pioneer of Proposition 71, talking about stem cell research. Here, in 2006, Klein discusses his role as a proponent for stem cell research, some basics of current stem cell research and more. (Video Citation 1)

See the video to the left to hear different researchers, as well as Dr. Yamanaka himself, at the Gladstone Institute speak about Dr. Yamanaka's discovery of iPSCs (influences, opinions, and hypotheses for the future).

(Video Citation 2)  


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