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.
Buried in this marvelous interview is the following conversation:
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.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
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 …
Ms. Tippett: Right.
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.