Ernest McCulloch: Medical pioneer identified stem cells

The Telegraph February 27, 2011

Prof. Ernest McCulloch, who died on Jan. 20 aged 84, was a Canadian medical researcher who, with James Till, identified what we know today as stem cells; such is the importance of the cells that some have likened McCulloch and Till to Watson and Crick -the duo who discovered DNA.

There are more than 200 kinds of cells in the human body, many of which are tailored to perform specific tasks. Stem cells are "blank" cells which can both reproduce themselves and be encouraged to develop into specific cells.

As such, they are viewed by many within medicine as a unique tool for healing, with the potential to rebuild damaged nerves or organs. Cancer, blindness, brain damage, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, arthritis and diabetes are just some of the conditions that hopeful researchers say could be defeated with the help of stem cells.

Concerned religious groups, however, view stem cell research as a trespass by mortal man into the divine realm of creation.

Such controversy was far from McCulloch's mind as he examined irradiated mice spleen one Sunday afternoon in the early 1960s. With nuclear war then considered a very real prospect, he and his research partner had been funded by Canada's Defence Research Board to investigate ways of treating the effects of radiation.

McCulloch was keen to test how mice which had been subjected to lethal doses of radiation would respond to injections of bone marrow. But the head of physics at the Ontario Cancer Institute, Harold Johns, who had developed Cobalt-60 radiation equipment to treat cancer, was loath to let a researcher near his machines.

He demanded a specialist volunteer to handle the radiation work. Till responded. "But once we began working together," noted McCulloch, "we were both doing everything and have been doing everything together really ever since."

Read more: