The Final Frontier 

Depending on whom you ask, stem-cell research is either a medical godsend or further proof that God is dead.

Thursday, Jan 30 2003

Irv Weissman‘s home is about 20 minutes from Stanford University, hidden from the road by a tall stand of trees. Inside, all of the rooms are spacious, but the living room is more so. The ceiling is high and broad-beamed; the furniture, Western chic: chairs hewn from tree branches, tables built from tree trunks. The couch is a curving affair that looks a little like a giant, gold earthworm caught in a pillow fight. Spread out in front of the fireplace is a bearskin rug. This bear has seen better days. Irv Weissman is talking about how those days came to an end.

”We ate him. Rare. We were a little nervous about it because most wild bears have trichinosis, but what the hell.“

Irv Weissman doesn’t look the bear-eating sort. He‘s of middle height, middle weight, mildly balding, with fine clothes, a jovial aspect and a long, wispy beard. He is a scientist, yet looks more like a Russian poet or an aged food critic. Beneath this exterior, however, he’s just a boy from Montana -- the grandson of a Jewish homesteader who, upon arriving at Ellis Island, walked across the country and tried his hand at mining, fur trapping and eventually opened a hide shop that became a group of hardware stores; the son of a man who, when wounded by a knife-wielding assailant, was tough enough to fight back and beat the man silly -- so silly it made the papers. Which is to say Weissman comes from a culture of bear eaters.

So why is he living among Stanford academics and not in Great Falls, Montana, with other bear eaters? When Weissman was 10, he read Paul de Kruif‘s book Microbe Hunters, which describes the work of Ehrlich, Pasteur and other early bacteriologists. He quickly decided science was more interesting than hardware. By the time he was in high school, he worked at a lab in Great Falls doing transplantation research. He published two papers, on cancer and transplantation, before he was 18.

Weissman entered Dartmouth College but found that he didn’t fit in with either the East Coast Jews or the East Coast non-Jews. After two years he transferred back to Montana State University in Bozeman, where he could study premed without worrying about how a Jew from Montana was supposed to behave on the East Coast. He left the state again in 1960, entered Stanford Medical School and one way or another has stayed for the duration. Currently, he‘s a professor of cancer biology and a professor of pathology. In 2002, he was voted California Scientist of the Year.

True to his roots, Weissman approaches science like a Montana boy -- charting unexplored realms, pioneering in the lab. His early work focused on how the cells of the immune system fight cancer. He spent much of his time studying the relationship between blood cells, cancer and radiation. Because of the research that emerged after the explosion of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists knew that exposing the human body to radiation wiped out both blood cells and cancer cells.

They also knew that after irradiating the body (chemotherapy), you could perform a bone-marrow transplant using marrow from a healthy, cancer-free donor and that something in that new bone marrow would begin producing all sorts of cells. ”We knew there must exist a very rare cell inside the bone marrow that would give rise to all types of cells -- but this was only a theory,“ says Weissman. ”No one had ever isolated that cell. I started wondering how to tease it out from all the others.“

This was in the late ’60s. For years, Weissman worked in his lab sorting cells. An easy way to think about this is that he took mouse blood and poured it through a long series of strainers. With each pass a different kind of cell was removed. Out came the T cells, out came the B cells, the red blood cells, the white blood cells and on and on until there was only one kind of cell left. Finally, in 1988, Weissman managed to do something that no one else had ever done, something that most people didn‘t even think was possible: He isolated a cell that gave rise to all other kinds of blood cells, a blood-forming stem cell. He also became one of the first people on the planet to realize the promise of what he had done. This has made him a controversial man.

If you’ve been living inside a Himalayan cave, perhaps you haven‘t heard about stem cells, but otherwise the gist has been hard to miss. Scientists from all fields have been harping on stem-cell research as the most important directed medical-research effort ever. When Irv Weissman started working with mouse cells, he realized, nearly from the beginning, that he was onto something that could potentially save millions of lives. ”I knew that if I could ever do this in humans,“ he says, ”I would be able to use chemotherapy to wipe out cancer cells and then transplant in new stem cells that would be completely disease free.“

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