On Being with Krista Tippett

Doris Taylor

Stem Cells, Untold Stories

Last Updated

September 30, 2010

Original Air Date

October 29, 2009

Using stem cells, Doris Taylor brought the heart of a dead animal back to life and might one day revolutionize human organ transplantation. She takes us beyond lightning rod issues and into an unfolding frontier where science is learning how stem cells work reparatively in every body at every age.

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Doris Taylor Taylor is the director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.


September 30, 2010

MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST:Doris Taylor is a pioneer on a scientific frontier of regeneration, innovating a process to bring the organs and tissues of dead animals back to life. This might one day revolutionize transplantation of human hearts, livers, and more. And it’s made possible by stem cells, which Doris Taylor explains as a new and dramatic discovery about the human body that’s been obscured by politicized debates over a narrow slice of her field. She says we might’ve avoided those debates altogether if we had found different vocabulary to discuss stems cells in public at the outset: distinguishing between fetal and embryonic cells, explaining the origins of the cells used in research, and illuminating the larger story of stem cells. Stem cells, as Doris Taylor knows them, are a powerful reality we’re all living with day to day, hour to hour. Understanding them better, she says, may change our approach to aging, cancer, and simply making our bodies work better for us — at eight or 80.

From American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today on Being, “Stem Cells: Untold Stories.”

In January 2008, Doris Taylor’s work at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Cardiovascular Repair was the stuff of global headlines — such as “Researchers Grow a Beating Heart.” Simply explained, Doris Taylor and her colleagues took the heart from the cadaver of a rat and injected stem cells into it. It came to life, and made history.

Doris Taylor’s work almost seems the stuff of science fiction and it approaches the religious terrain of resurrection. But it’s not so different, she says, from other great scientific leaps forward.

DR. DORIS TAYLOR: Twenty years ago, if we had said we were going to map the human genome, 20 years ago when we did say we were going to map the human genome, it was viewed as almost impossible. Fifty years ago computers filled up this room. It’s all the same story; it’s just we’re talking about our bodies and we find that much more mysterious. And we find it much more mysterious because they are alive.

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MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Doris Taylor in 2009. She began pondering healing writ large at an early age. She grew up in Mississippi in the era of civil rights; she’s said that no one could come of age in Mississippi when she did and not want to make the world a better place. She also grew up with a twin brother with cerebral palsy, which may have influenced her move towards medical research as a way to make the world a better place. But Doris Taylor arrived at her work with cells and the heart indirectly.

DR. TAYLOR: I wanted to specialize actually in mind/brain neuro stuff, and the department I was in at the time in graduate school said, “That field isn’t advanced enough for you to really do that.” So I started studying muscle, and I started studying the interactions between nerve and muscle because it was about as close as I could get. We were looking at the whole — all the genes that exist and get turned on in muscle in your arm, in your leg, and in your heart, and realized that your heart’s just the ultimate muscle. And then when we started talking about what happens after a heart attack and the fact that your heart can’t repair itself, it, in a natural way, made sense to start thinking about cells from your skeletal muscle to do that. And that’s how my career really happened.

MS. TIPPETT: So I want to talk a little bit about your great discovery, or your accomplishment. It’s interesting to me because I’ve noticed that in shorthand when people talk about it, they’ll sometimes say that you made a heart.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: But what I saw, as I really dug into you and what you said about your work and really understanding it, it was very interesting. One of the things that I’ve been fascinated in, in my conversations with scientists in general is how scientists have such a regard for beauty.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And, say, physicists find mathematical equations beautiful. And I was really struck in your descriptions of what you did by how you found the heart, the architecture of the heart, beautiful.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And so in fact you didn’t make a heart; you worked with that structure.

DR. TAYLOR: Right. Right. The heart is a beautiful organ. It’s a complex, beautiful organ. And when I was at Duke, we started trying to, quote, “regenerate” a heart. And we started that using cells and realized pretty quickly that cells were probably not going to be enough for people who already have heart failure, end-stage heart failure; that you really need a heart. And trying to build a heart sure seemed complicated to me.

And there was a fellow in my lab, his name was Harold, and Harold and I were talking about how it’d be really cool if we could figure out a way to take cells out and put cells back in. Well, what we did is we realized what do you need to build an organ? You need three things. You need cells, but cells alone don’t make an organ. They just hang out in a dish and beat. And you need a place to put those cells. Give them a context. And then you need a way to feed those cells.

Well, nature’s already created that. Nature’s created a heart. And the simplicity of what we did, really, is take a heart from a cadaver and literally use soap. Pretty simple. The same soap that’s in shampoo, actually.


DR. TAYLOR: And wash the cells, using the blood supply to that organ, literally drip soap through it.

MS. TIPPETT: So wash out all the dead cells.

DR. TAYLOR: So you wash out all the cells from the cadaver organ and what’s left is literally the framework. It actually looks a lot like Jell-O.

MS. TIPPETT: The heart, devoid of cells, looks like Jell-O?

DR. TAYLOR: I should’ve brought one. I didn’t. It’s actually beautiful. And yet it looks like a heart. It’s got the shape of a heart, the architecture of a heart. You can see where the blood vessels would be. It’s pretty remarkable. And at a very simplistic level, it’s — we call it a “ghost heart.” It’s a skeleton of a heart. Then you can add cells back. And that’s what we did. In truth, we just did a very crude version of what nature does. We took that scaffold, added cells back, and they did what they know how to do, which is beat and pump.

MS. TIPPETT: Now I know that this is true of every scientific discovery, that the breakthrough is the culmination of lots of years of work and trial and error and failure. But you did finally have this experience that you had cleaned the heart, you injected it, and then eight days later …

DR. TAYLOR: You know, I’ve had two “wow” moments in my life. The first one was when we transplanted cells in the heart for the first time. And we looked at one of those hearts — we looked at a section of one of those hearts — and there was a big island of new cells in the heart. And it was like, wow, yes. Well, the second yes moment in my life is Harold and Thomas were in the lab late at night and they called me. “Doris, it’s beating.” I was in my office, and they were like, “Doris, it’s beating.” You just kind of sit there for a minute and you kind of — you know, I was like, “Show me!” And that moment when you see that, I mean, literally, it was one of those, oh my god. Because it really wasn’t that complicated, and on the other hand, there were so many things that could’ve gone wrong. There are so many steps along the way. And, wow. And wow. Because what that means is it’s possible. And what somebody said recently, and it makes a lot of sense, is we did it first, but now a lot of people are going to do this. And we hope we’ve opened a door to a new field of building tissues and organs for people who need them.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Stem Cells: Untold Stories.” We had to see Doris Taylor’s hearts in various stages of regeneration for ourselves — and on our website you can see them too. Join me on a tour through Doris Taylor’s lab. See elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally, a regenerated heart, pink, pumping, alive, and beating on its own. That’s all at onbeing.org.

Family members of people who could benefit from her research have told Doris Taylor that she’s not just building organs; she’s building hope. Yet the very notion of stem cells, which makes her work possible, became a divisive flashpoint in politicized divides of recent years. Doris Taylor takes the human and moral concerns that her science raises very seriously. She’s said publicly that these were inflamed, in part, by simple miscommunication and misunderstanding of the facts.

MS. TIPPETT: I thought I would give you an opportunity here. I wonder if you would tell me how, if you could rewind the discussion and you could introduce this notion of the work you do and the field you’re in …


MS. TIPPETT: … and the whole idea of stem cells, how would you start? How would you explain what this is, what it means?

DR. TAYLOR: You know, stem cells are really very simple. They’re cells that can do two things: They can make more of themselves or self-renew, and they can, quote “differentiate,” become a lot of different things, differentiate. And, really, we have stem cells everywhere in our body. I’ve said before and you may have heard me say, I believe aging is a failure of stem cells. That every organ or tissue in our body for the most part has stem cells in it. So there’s nothing to be afraid of. But I think the fear is that — well, I mean, let’s be frank. The word that’s used is embryonic stem cell, and the concept is that we’re taking fetuses and using those to create cells for medicine. That is just not true. Fetal cells are already muscle, already heart, already lung. They’re not stem cells anymore.


DR. TAYLOR: They’ve already developed into a given tissue, organ, whatever. Embryonic stem cells are cells that come from a fertilized egg before any of that differentiation occurs. Fetal stem cells are too old to be used for what we do. What we’re really using are fertilized eggs.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’re using fertilized eggs that have been donated to research from in vitro fertilization experiments.

DR. TAYLOR: Right. Right. And that’s a whole different situation. If you think about it, what’s the alternative with those fertilized eggs? They’re going to be stored until they’re no longer needed. And when they’re no longer needed, what happens to them? We don’t talk about that. My understanding is they go in the trash. They’re destroyed. My personal, ethical, and moral belief is the universe gives us tools to use and we’re taught things that we need to learn along the way. And I can’t turn my back on this wonderful opportunity to learn how nature builds things. Embryonic stem cells, quote/unquote, have the potential to become almost any tissue. What that means is that I can take these cells from a fertilized egg — what do they do? Like every other cell, they divide. So once they make about eight cells or 10 cells, we can begin to take those cells and watch them as they mature into something that looks like a piece of heart, or looks like a piece of muscle, or looks like a piece of skin. Now I think that’s an incredible learning opportunity.

In addition, what we don’t talk about is there are a number of fertilized eggs from in vitro fertilization that we know have genetic diseases. Those are never going to be implanted. And wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could understand how the man I was talking with the other day developed heart failure because we could study cells from a fertilized egg where that same genetic difference occurred, and we knew those cells were going to grow up and have heart failure?

MS. TIPPETT: I think you’re right, that at least the impression that has been given, whether this was intentional or not, or spelled out or not, was that the embryos in embryonic stem cell research …

DR. TAYLOR: Come from …

MS. TIPPETT: … had something to do with abortion.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: Or could have something to do with abortion. And I know that you have spent time over these last years in conversation with religious people who have this kind of moral perspective on this issue.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: I wonder, did they make a distinction morally between the use of aborted fetuses and …


MS. TIPPETT: … fertilized eggs that are going to be discarded anyway through in vitro fertilization clinics?

DR. TAYLOR: You know, the general perception on the street — when I’ve talked to people at churches, when I’ve gone to give stem cell talks at churches, is “Wow. I thought people had abortions and you used those cells.” It’s simply not true. You know, the reaction is about fear and misperception. And my experience has been when you tell people what’s really happening and you tell people what’s really going on and you talk to someone who’s kid or brother or sister or mother or father has a disease, they start realizing that we’re just talking about another tool that we’ve all been given to use.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s something that I didn’t really understand until I started looking into your work, and this is where I think, understandably, fear come from. It seems to me that the discovery of stem cells is one of those discoveries almost like DNA that forces us to think differently about what we’re made of and how our bodies work. It’s so new.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, this is something I didn’t understand. That it’s new knowledge. That we all have a billion stem cells …

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: … in our bodies as adults.

DR. TAYLOR: Right. Think about it, though. For most of our lives, our bodies repair themselves. You know, I have an e-mail address that’s called stemcellsrus because it’s really about the fact that stem cells are really pretty simple, as I said. They exist all the time until we get old enough that they don’t anymore. And I can tell you, that for most of us as we age, we wish we had more of them, not fewer.

MS. TIPPETT: So are stem cells involved in the fact that, say, when my 11-year-old son bangs his head at least once a week or scratches his knees to pieces …

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: … they get better?

DR. TAYLOR: He doesn’t have a scar forever, does he?

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. TAYLOR: And that’s because our organs and tissues have stem cells that can repair them. I call that endogenous repair, internal repair. And that’s what I meant when I said aging is really a failure of stem cells. For most of our lives, we have stem cells in all of our organs or tissues that can heal them. And they do so by taking care of that normal wear and tear. But as you get to be 52, 62, 72 and you fall down and you scrape your knee, you may have a scar for the rest of your life because as we age the number of stem cells we have goes down and the function of the ones that we have decreases.

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MS. TIPPETT: There’s a real correlation in your work to stem cells as a normal part of health and across the lifespan.

DR. TAYLOR: They are. They are. You know, the whole notion of, quote, “cell therapy,” which is being used — what was the first cell therapy that was ever used? It happened here in Minnesota in the ’60s. It was bone marrow transplant. We would harvest bone marrow, right, and when somebody had cancer, we would wipe out their bone marrow and give them new bone marrow. And we used to think that we were just giving them the cells that were going to make new blood and new — new blood, basically. What we now know is that the bone marrow is full of stem cells.


DR. TAYLOR: So essentially those same cells that we used to call bone marrow cells we now call bone marrow stem cells or bone marrow progenitor cells.


DR. TAYLOR: And it just means that the science has caught up and our knowledge has caught up with what nature has been doing all along. Which is making sure we had cells that could repair our organs and tissues. You’ve got billions of them in your bones right now. You’ve got billions of — do you know that you can even derive stem cells from baby teeth? From the inside of baby teeth? There are stem cells being derived from — I mean, we could go down a whole laundry list. Urine. Blood. Bone.

MS. TIPPETT: Skin. Yes.


MS. TIPPETT: Are stem cells why skin heals and — I mean, skin is constantly turning over.

DR. TAYLOR: Essentially all of our organs and tissues turn over. It’s that whole average wear and tear that we go through. And then ultimately if we take enough hits for a long enough period of time, we start running out of cells.


DR. TAYLOR: And that’s, you know, we talk about high-risk behavior. It gives it a whole different meaning when you think about the fact that, you know, those cheeseburgers aren’t just about cholesterol, they’re about the wear and tear on the inside of our blood vessels over time.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MS. TIPPETT: When you join our tour of Doris Taylor’s laboratory on our website, speakingoffaith.org, you’ll hear more of her reflections on the more human side of her work, and you can see me holding a ghost heart, as she calls it, a gelatinous pig’s heart stripped of its cells. Also see a pulsing rodent heart suspended in a network of glass tubes she calls a “bioreactor.”

DR. TAYLOR: So this is a heart that’s just starting the process. Looks like a heart.


DR. TAYLOR: But it’s obviously dead because it’s not beating, it’s not alive. It’s actually got soap going through it to wash the cells out. And here’s one that is in the process of being rebuilt. It’s obviously a lot more complicated than the scaffold alone because it’s got to have oxygen, it’s got to have what we call artificial blood. It’s getting the food in it to expand and act like a heart.

MS. TIPPETT: All this and more at onbeing.org.

After a short break, more conversation with Doris Taylor, including what we’re learning about stem cells that can help us reverse that wear and tear of life’s cheeseburgers.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. This program comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today on Being — “Stem Cells: Untold Stories.” We’re meeting Doris Taylor who directs the Center for Cardiovascular Repair at the University of Minnesota. She made history — and Time‘s 2009 list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People” — after she and her colleagues innovated a process that uses stem cells to bring the organs of dead animals back to life. Doris Taylor believes that stem cells will be key to our developing understanding of health at every level across the lifespan in the years to come. To that end, she’s been involved with the field of integrative medicine at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. She’s also worked on studies based at Duke University and elsewhere to measure the potential physical cellular benefits of spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation.

As we continue to learn how stem cells function, grow, and wane in human bodies, Doris Taylor insists, we can also learn how to increase their function, even using them to reverse aging and disease. This is the frontier known as regenerative or reparative medicine.

DR. TAYLOR: Finally, our knowledge has caught up with — or is catching up with biology. We don’t understand it all yet. We don’t understand what makes them decrease but we know we can begin to move people backwards. And can I tell you some cool stuff? We believe that things that decrease stress actually increase the number of stem cells that you have in your body and in your blood. And we know that men and women have different numbers and different kinds of stem cells. And so for the first time, we think we can begin to understand why it is that men develop heart disease earlier than women — because they lose their stem cells faster.

So wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could say, “Wait a minute. We can move you backwards on that continuum of disease.” And I think that’s the future. The future is really using nature’s tools to promote our body’s ability to heal itself, whether we do that with traditional medical approaches, giving you cells, giving you molecules that increase the number of stem cells in a controlled way, or whether it’s about teaching you tools that let your body do that.


DR. TAYLOR: Meditation, whatever.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And in that context — so here’s a paradox that strikes me in your work when I read a description of your laboratory where you have a number of hearts beating, right? So there’s something about this idea of disembodied hearts that then starts to make me worry about then how we define what we are.

DR. TAYLOR: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? But then the irony is that one of the things you’re discovering is that one of the ways our whole organism has to increase this capacity, this efficiency of stem cells, are through what I call these spiritual technologies like meditation. So, in fact, you take the things apart and then see how they fit together again.

DR. TAYLOR: You know, it’s interesting because when we were first doing the guys in the lab would sleep in the lab to check on these hearts every half-hour or hour and a half. And when one of my folks who’s in my lab now came into the lab and was learning this process, Thomas — who was in the lab before — said, “You’ve just got to love it enough to keep it going.”

MS. TIPPETT: Was he talking about the hearts?

DR. TAYLOR: He was talking about the hearts …


DR. TAYLOR: … that we were growing in a dish. And, you know, we joke about that but at the same time, I think part of what we’re doing is learning about regenerating heart at a lot of different levels. And I think as we learn more about transplanting these hearts, what makes what we’re doing a little bit different than what exists out there already is we would — if we wanted to build you a heart, we would take a cadaver scaffold from a pig or from a human that couldn’t otherwise be used as a transplant. But we would take your stem cells, and we would use your cells to grow that heart. So it’s really about putting your body’s ability to heal you back in place.

MS. TIPPETT: And then the way I understand it is you also see part of what you would want me to learn in terms of nurturing …

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: … that repair forward would also — there would also be a spiritual component to that.

DR. TAYLOR: I mean, I personally have to believe that there’s a spiritual component to all of this. What we think impacts who we are. We know that. We know that, whether it’s what we think makes us grumpy or what we think makes us happy. And we’re learning that those have an impact on our physical body. Stress ages your stem cells. There’s science out there from some of the best laboratories in the world showing that the way a cell knows how old it is, is it has a little piece of DNA, chromosome, right? On the end of that chromosome is a little piece of DNA called a telomere. And every time your cell divides, that gets shorter. And when it reaches a certain point, it says, “Oops. I’m old. Time to die.” Well, stress makes that piece of DNA get shorter. So stress literally ages your stem cells. If you believe that’s true, and it is, it also ought to be possible to reverse stress and make your cells younger.

MS. TIPPETT: And lengthen the telomere? Have they done that? Have you seen that?

DR. TAYLOR: There are some experiments underway looking at that right now, but there are ways to lengthen telomeres. I would also argue that — and I have absolutely no data to support this, but this is one of those gut things that I’ll be looking at over the next few years — that cancer is in some way — so what’s cancer? Cancer is basically cells gone bad. It’s cells that no longer know when to stop dividing. What’s a stem cell? A stem cell’s a cell that can self-renew, make a lot of itself and keep dividing, and become a lot of different things. What’s a tumor cell? It’s a cell that can make a lot of different cells and become a lot of different things. In some ways they’re very similar, but a stem cell has the signals that know when to stop dividing. Tumor cells don’t. I would argue that in some ways, cancer is nature’s attempt to replenish that stem cell pool as we get older. That as we start running out of those cells, more and more cells have to divide to replenish that pool. And if something goes bad, then you get a tumor. Now, can I prove that yet? No. But we know that some cancers come from stem cells. We also know that metastases, the things that spread, are often stem cells.

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MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about the experiment you did with Matthieu Ricard, who is a famous French philosopher Buddhist who’s worked with the Dalai Lama.

DR. TAYLOR: Right. And …

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, and he’s said to be the happiest man alive, I think.

DR. TAYLOR: Yes. He’s written a book called Happiness.


DR. TAYLOR: He’s doing some studies with some people at the University of Wisconsin where …

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, Richardson Davidson?

DR. TAYLOR: Yes. He and a number of his colleagues meditate, and as they meditate they measure differences in their brainwaves. Right? And I basically said I would predict that those very same things that when you meditate and you have positive brainwave changes would also have an effect on your stem cells. He very graciously, and this is an N of one, let us measure cells in his blood before and after meditation. And what we found was a huge increase in the number of positive stem cells in blood. Largest increase I’ve ever seen after 15 minutes of meditation.

MS. TIPPETT: And so that meditation kicks in your body’s own regenerative reparative powers?

DR. TAYLOR: It’s all about endogenous repair. And I don’t think I said this earlier, but you know how when your son falls down, scrapes his knees, got a red spot?


DR. TAYLOR: That’s inflammation. Inflammation, I think, is nature’s cue to say, “Send me cells.”


DR. TAYLOR: “I’ve got an injury. Send me cells.” And if you get the right cells there you turn off that inflammation and you heal. If you don’t get the right cells there and you don’t heal, you get more inflammation. And I think your body’s saying, “Hey, I said send me cells. Will you get with it and send me cells?” And if you don’t get the right cells there, you ramp up inflammation and you start getting the negative consequences of inflammation.


DR. TAYLOR: Well, we see that on our skin when we fall down and scrape our knee or when we cut our finger or something, but that’s going on inside our body all the time. We have inflammation.

MS. TIPPETT: Every time you eat a cheeseburger, right?

DR. TAYLOR: Every time you eat a cheeseburger.


DR. TAYLOR: We have inflammation going on inside our blood vessels, inside our organs, inside our tissues. And I think those are nature’s cues to say, “Send me cells.” Well, I would also say that meditation is essentially doing that without the inflammation. It’s nature’s way of sending those cells to the sites where you need them in a way to turn down the negative aspects of stress. So stress in my mind is another word for inflammation. I would say inflammation is the physiologic consequence of stress.

MS. TIPPETT: Which also has mental and — it’s also …

DR. TAYLOR: Emotional, mental, spiritual, physical.

MS. TIPPETT: Inflammation. We have all that too.

DR. TAYLOR: Right.


DR. TAYLOR: If you don’t believe stress ages someone, look at a president before and after they’ve been in office for four years.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today — “Stem Cells: Untold Stories.” We’re meeting cardiac researcher Doris Taylor, who’s made scientific history as she innovates a process that uses the given architecture of a heart, injected with stem cells, to bring the organs of dead animals back to life. Though this process is several years away from human testing and application, she hopes eventually to transform the field of human organ transplantation — using a patient’s own stem cells to make the organ their own.

Join our fieldtrip to her otherworldly laboratory at the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute. That’s at our new Web address, onbeing.org.

Since my interview with Doris Taylor, there have been more intriguing medical innovations using stem cells. They’ve been used to grow part of a human jawbone, and to repair corneas and restore almost normal vision to people who were blind from chemical burns.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I want to ask you some of the “so what” questions. What all this means, or how you internalize it and make meaning of it. I mean, you have given life to something that was dead. Right? I mean, how does that make you think differently about what it means to be alive?

DR. TAYLOR: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: What it means to be human.

DR. TAYLOR: I have to tell you that the most profound moment for me was when I — the first time I saw heart cells beating in a dish, just in a dish. You see these cells and they’re beating and you go, “Wow. What?” We get it that our cells grow and I always knew they were alive, but once you see those cells beating in a dish it’s like, “Wow. What is alive?” And I can’t tell you I’ve fully wrapped my brain around that yet. I can also tell you that, you know, I probably have to just think about this very simply, which is, we’re able to put together these tools that nature’s created and they, in ways we’ll never understand, know how to become greater than the sum of the parts. And if you think about it, we’re just really the hands that are …

MS. TIPPETT: You mean “we,” the doctors, the scientists?

DR. TAYLOR: Yeah. We’re just really the hands that — we still haven’t created a cell. I’ve said for 20 years that if we really wanted to understand a cell, we should just take a big white wall, draw a circle on it, and everyone who walks by should write down what they know. And at some point maybe we’d get to the point that we understand even what a cell is. We don’t really know how it works. And the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful part is we don’t have to.


DR. TAYLOR: We could spend the next 20, 30, 40 years trying to understand how this works, or we can watch it work and understand it well enough to make it safe and effective and maybe actually change somebody’s life. And that’s what we really want to do.

We have a couple of questions that we ask ourselves. One: Is it ready for primetime? Would you want to use it on your mom?

MS. TIPPETT: Is that the test: would you want to use it on your mom?

DR. TAYLOR: If you wouldn’t use it on your mom we’re not going to use it on somebody else’s mom. And then there’s actually this great road sign from New Zealand, I believe, that somebody sent me from the Internet. And it’s a road sign, and you’re coming into a town and it says: “Drive carefully. We have two cemeteries and no hospital.” And that’s really how we have to approach this field. Drive carefully. Drive carefully. And yet we’ve got to keep driving because it matters. It matters. And we can already do things that 10 years ago we thought were absolutely undoable.

MS. TIPPETT: Let me — I wonder if you’ve read William Saletan. He’s written in Slate.


MS. TIPPETT: He wrote a piece after President Obama lifted the ban on federal funding of stem cell research using human embryos, and I don’t think he’s against this, per se, but he wrote, “You won.” He’s talking to people who were for that federal funding. He said, “Now, for the next challenge: don’t lose your soul.” I just, I want to read — so, again, you know, because all these things you describe are incredible. As you say, they’re science fiction now or that’s what it feels like you’re working in. And he said something like, “Embryos are the beginnings of people. They are not parts of the people. They are the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells.” And then here’s the question, and I just want to ask you if this is even a way you would think the question can be phrased: “How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?” What’s your reaction to that question?

DR. TAYLOR: My reaction to that question is the ways that I’ve seen humanity strip-mined have nothing to do with cells. In my spiritual world, it would be inhumane to turn my back on a parent who calls me and says, “My child was born with X, Y, and Z. Can you help me?” And I’m a spiritual person. The universe has given me tools; I’m going to use those tools. At the same time, it would be morally wrong not for me to respect beliefs of someone else who makes a different choice. And that’s really — you know, we’re a diverse group of people and if you believe in God then you believe God, Allah, whoever, made us that way. And I can’t judge what somebody else asks. I can only say in my heart it would be a worse travesty to turn my back on the knowledge and awareness I’ve been given.

Strip-mining humanity? I would say go spend a week in an intensive care — pediatric intensive care unit. Or go spend a week with kids who are struggling to learn how to sit up at age 14. Or go spend an hour with somebody who just wants to see their daughter or son grow up. And then talk to me about what you think the right approaches are.

It’s not a difficult question for me. The difficult question for me is really more about making room for hate or disbelief or — you know, it’s just so ironic to me because I grew up with a brother who has cerebral palsy, OK?

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. Right.

DR. TAYLOR: So every year we used to go collect money for the cerebral palsy telethon that they had on TV. And they gave away a bike, so we had completely nothing altruistic about our interest. We wanted to win the bike.


DR. TAYLOR: Every year. You know, so we’d go collect money. And there was this one lady who would give us, like, $50 every year, and so we’d go knock on her door. And then there’d be people who’d just slam their door in our face. And our mom said to us, “You know, Doris, people usually don’t care about things until it touches their lives. And once it touches their lives their perception changes.” And I can’t tell you the number of people who don’t believe in research or don’t believe in science or don’t believe in innovative approaches to medicine until it’s their daughter or son or brother. And then all of a sudden, they’re at least open to the conversation.

[Sound bite of music]

DR. TAYLOR: I always go back to a very simple account that we used to chew willow bark hundreds of years ago for pain, right? And we had no idea that it was really — that it contained the same thing that is in aspirin today. But our grandmothers knew and our grandmothers’ mothers knew and it’s the same sort of thing. There are so many ways that we know we can heal ourselves and there’s a body of knowledge out there about that. And we’re really just discovering details. How does that work?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. TAYLOR: Not “Does that work?” but “How does that work?” I would also say that you have to dream it and think it and speak it before you can do it.

MS. TIPPETT: But it’s a great combination you’re talking about, of applying the best of your knowledge, speaking your dreams and questions, and also relying on common sense and your intuition.

DR. TAYLOR: Sure. But isn’t it all the same thing? I mean, really. Ten, 20 years ago, if we had said we were going to map the human genome — 20 years ago, when we did say we were going to map the human genome — it was viewed as almost impossible. It was going to take forever, and we would be able to do it for one genome and that would be it.


DR. TAYLOR: Well, it’s no longer impossible. Fifty years ago, computers filled up this room.


DR. TAYLOR: t’s all the same story. It’s just we’re talking about our bodies and we find that much more mysterious. And we find it much more mysterious because they are alive, and they are — and we don’t know how to capture that essence. And yet we’re getting to the point that we at least have readouts for it, and cells are one readout. You know, there are a lot of studies that have been done on music, imagery, touch, prayer, as intercessions for illness or disease.


DR. TAYLOR: If you believe those work, how do they have to work? They have to work at the level of the cell.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s where you work.

DR. TAYLOR: And they probably work in part by increasing the number of stem cells.


DR. TAYLOR: My vision of the future is if it exists, it exists at the level of the cell. We can measure it, we can use it. We can use cells to very early in the process to prevent and reverse disease, after a disease has happened to begin to treat disease, and when all else fails, I really do think we can build tissues and organs and begin to cure disease. And aging and chronic disease are really, in my mind, the same thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Doris Taylor is the director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair at the University of Minnesota.

The fascinating science of stem cell research comes with a world of complex moral questions and uncertainties. Beyond the very important questions about when life begins and the moral status of the human embryo, people across religious and political divides care about how stem cell techniques will be commercialized and who will have access to them.

We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’ve been sparked in listening to Doris Taylor or through your own experiences and knowledge. Look for the “Share Your Story” link on our home page, onbeing.org. And find much more material there to expand and share the conversation that has begun here — including the unedited interview and our fascinating tour of her lab.

And as you know if you’ve ever visited our website, it contains a universe of subjects and ideas.

Right now, for example, we invite you to learn about the Fes Festival. Our guest contributor, Hussein Rashid, has written about this dream concert and the subsequent informal jam sessions, Sufi Night. He says this musical ritual creates visible moments of nearness to the Divine. Find this on our blog at onbeing.org.

MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer. Our theme music was composed by Victor Zupanc.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is managing producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.