Book: The Proteus Effect

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The Proteus Effect: Stem Cells and Their Promise for Medicine

Author: Ann Parson
Publisher: Joseph Henry Press

“Stem cells hold particular promise for unlocking life-saving secrets of the cell…”—National Academy of Sciences

Cutting edge stem cell research could pave the way to a bold new era in medicine, providing cell-based treatments—perhaps even cures—for scores of diseases and illnesses. But what exactly are these biological wonders—these things called stem cells? And what promise do they really hold for medicine? As acclaimed author Ann Parson suggests, one way to measure the future is to first search back through the past to take stock of how humans have gradually awakened to these distinctive, often camouflaged, cells in our midst and slowly come to recognize their worth.

The story of stem cell technologies is at once compelling, controversial, and remarkable. Part detective story, part medical history, The Proteus Effect describes early scientific discoveries that date back as far as 1740 before proceeding into the present to recount the incredible events leading to the discovery of stem cells in animal tumors, in the blood of mice, in the brains of canaries, in human embryos, and then in the skin, liver, and other organs of grown humans. It looks at the explosive potential of these special cells for the future of medicine.

Stem cells are the clay of life waiting for the cellular signal that will coax them into taking on the shape of the beating muscle cells of the heart, insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, or message-carrying cells of the central nervous system. Manipulate them the right way, turn them into the right type of cell, and it’s possible that stem cells could be used to counter (or cure) diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders—even infertility or baldness!

But should scientists be allowed to pick apart five-day-old embryos in order to retrieve stem cells? And when stem cells whisper to us of immortality—they can divide and perpetuate new cells indefinitely—how do we respond? Stem cells are forcing us not only to reexamine how we define the beginning of life but how we come to terms with the end of life as well. But these cells are such stunning creations that anyone stopping to peer at them cannot help but admire them for the qualities that go far beyond their uses as simple tools for human medicine. In the end, stem cells open our eyes to the presence of forces in Nature that are far greater than anything humans could imagine or invent.

Meticulously researched, artfully balanced, and engagingly told, Ann B. Parson chronicles a scientific discovery in progress, exploring the ethical debates, describing the current research, and hinting of a spectacular new era in medicine. The Proteus Effect is as timely as it is riveting.

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