The Proteus Effect: Stem Cells and Their Promise for Medicine

The views expressed in this book are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academies.

Ann B. Parson is a science journalist who has covered a range of topics in the areas of medicine, technology, and the environment. She is co-author of Decoding Darkness; The Search for the Genetic Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. Published in 2000, Decoding Darkness was hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as a “fascinating story” and “not just another sterile account of scientific discovery.” Parson is co-author as well of Menopause. She has written dozens of articles for a range of publications, among them The Boston Globe, The New York Times, McCalls, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Harvard Health Letter. From 1990 to 1998, she taught in Boston University’s graduate program in science journalism. She currently resides in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

The Proteus Effect; Stem Cells and Their Promise for Medicine was nominated for a LA Times Book Prize and named to Library Journals annual list of best Science-Technology books. Anns earlier books include Decoding Darkness; The Search for the Genetic Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease, which she co-authored with neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi, Harvard Medical School, and a book on womens health co-authored with Dr. Isaac Schiff, Chief of Obstetrics, Mass General Hospital. Each book was considered a leader among comparable titles.

Between 2008 & 2012 Ann wrote five commissioned family histories/biographies, each privately printed. First came three New England families: the Lymans, the Wigglesworths, and the Pickerings. Biographies of two outstanding engineers followed: Mortimer Rogoff, a pioneer of GPS and cell-phone technology; and Antonio Ferri, the unparalleled father of supersonic and hypersonic flight.

Stem cells could be the key that unlocks cures to scores of diseases and illnesses. Their story is at once compelling, controversial, and remarkable. Part detective story, part medical history, The Proteus Effect recounts the events leading up to the discovery of stem cells and their incredible potential for the future of medicine.

What exactly are these biological wonders these things called stem cells? They may be tiny, but their impact is earth shaking, generating excitement among medical researchers and outright turmoil in political circles. They are reported to be nothing short of miraculous. But they have also incited fear and mistrust in many. Indeed, recent research on stem cells raises important questions as rapidly as it generates new discoveries.

The power of stem cells rests in their unspecialized but marvelously flexible nature. They are the clay of life waiting for the cellular signal that will coax them into taking on the shape of the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. With a wave of our medical magic wand, its possible that stem cells could be used to effectively treat (even cure) diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and even baldness.

But should scientists be allowed to pick apart four-day-old embryos in order to retrieve stem cells? And when stem cells whisper to us of immortality they can divide and perpetuate new cells indefinitely how do we respond? Stem cells are forcing us to not only reexamine how we define the beginning of life but how we come to terms with the end of life as well.

Meticulously researched, artfully balanced, and engagingly told, Ann Parson chronicles a scientific discovery in progress, exploring the ethical debates, describing the current research, and hinting of a spectacular new era in medicine. The Proteus Effect is as timely as it is riveting.

Ann B. Parson. 2004. The Proteus Effect: Stem Cells and Their Promise for Medicine. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

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The Proteus Effect: Stem Cells and Their Promise for Medicine