Putting Stem Cells on the Map

For god’s sake, be useful.

Growing up, that was the first verse of an ethos that I heard around the dinner table night after night – and it was the impulse I carried with me as I started my career. Years later, as a physician, I wanted to take that mission a step further: to develop a new therapy that would improve human health.

Dr. Chuck Murry, PhD, pathology, in his lab at UW Medicine Research South Lake Union. He is director for both the UW Center for Cardiovascular Biology and the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

My fascination with heart regeneration began in the 1990’s. Back then, we didn’t have the human genome. We didn’t have the knowledge about developmental biology that we do now. I had the notion to transplant cells to make new heart muscle, but the question was: where are we going to get the cells?

Then along came embryonic stem cells – the building blocks to repair human tissue.  That was the beginning. We could see that human embryonic stem cells had the power to become any kind of cell type in the human body and this was going to be extraordinarily useful, but we didn’t know exactly how. We just knew this was raw power in some kind of way.

Although embryonic stem cells were controversial then, the idea of creating a stem cell institute gained traction quickly. Tony, Randy, and I had fifteen minutes with Mark Emmert (then the President of the University of Washington), and we made the case that this institute would galvanize the medical community and lead to profound changes in human health.

And it fit well into the culture of Seattle. Bone marrow transplantation started  here. The first stem cell therapies were developed here, and it’s still the best place in the world to get a blood stem cell transplant. It was home to a very strong developmental biology community. Founding the Institute let us put all the pieces together.  

The first ten years were a blast.  Randy, Tony and I ran ISCRM as a sort of triumvirate, where any one of us could represent the Institute on behalf of the others at meetings or public events.  We worked by consensus, which always was easy to achieve.  I will be forever grateful that Randy, the most basic scientist among us, pushed for ISCRM to focus on developing new therapies.  That put patients at the core of our values, where they remain today.

It’s immensely gratifying now to see that what we’ve built. I’m especially proud of our young faculty who we recruited here – and who are now getting their NIH R01 grants and leading their own labs.

My hope is that in ten years Seattle is seen as the place that that put stem cell and regenerative medicine on the map by focusing on hard questions, by fulfilling a promise to conduct science safely and effectively, and by changing the way people live.

That brings me back to the dinner table, back in North Dakota. For god’s sake, be useful. That was the first part of the message I heard from my parents. As I recall the second part, I like to think we’ve accomplished something special.

Do something that leaves the world a little better than the way you found it.