A desperate injection of stem cells and hope
She didn't know what to make of all this. She had never heard of anyone being cured of ALS, and she gingerly questioned his plan.

Tom stabbed at the keys on his voice synthesizer. An electronic retort pulsed back at her: "I've done a lot of research."

He felt sure: This was science.


It began 50 years ago with the discovery of an odd lump on the scrotum of a lab mouse.

Researchers at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, were investigating whether cigarette paper could cause cancer. One lab mouse had an unusual tumor.

Most tumors are made up of one type of tissue that grows out of control. But this one was a grotesque clump of budding muscle, bone, nerves and fat.

It was biology gone haywire.

After many experiments, the scientists found a smattering of unfamiliar cells mixed in this mad stew of life.

These tumor cells, they surmised, were transforming into other tissue types.

The cells gave scientists a chance to look at one of the most mysterious processes of life.

All the complexity of the human body — hearts, lungs, brains, limbs — starts from a single fertilized egg. As it divides, an unknown set of biochemical signals tells the multiplying cells to differentiate into the diverse tissues of the body.

When the cells are primitive, they have the ability to become any tissue — "pluripotent" in medical terminology.

The mouse tumors offered a crude glimpse of these "stem cells" and their power to transform.

It would be decades before researchers possessed the technology to find them in embryos.

In 1981, scientists isolated embryonic stem cells in mice and successfully grew them into a kind of suspended animation in which the cells would indefinitely divide but not differentiate.

They later found that slight chemical changes could make the cells suddenly transform into a mishmash of tissue.

It took 17 more years before researchers at the University of Wisconsin isolated the cells from days-old human embryos.

The floodgates of medical fantasy were thrown open.