SciFridays: From Organs to Cells–A Journey Through Controversy

Pioneering surgeon Susan Lim performed the first liver transplant in Asia. But a moral concern with transplants (where do donor livers come from …) led her to look further, and to ask: Could we be transplanting cells, not whole organs? At the INK Conference, she talks through her new research, discovering healing cells in some surprising places.

[If for some reason the video can’t play, please visit the TED TALK HERE.]

“It made me wonder if there could be a better way. A way to circumvent death, and yet deliver the gift of life that could exponentially impact millions of patients worldwide.”

“Stem cells provide hope for a new beginning.”

Dr. Susan Lim

I admire Dr. Lim’s vision and compassion as she talks through her personal experiences as a pioneer surgeon. I am inspired by how she reacted to moral concerns, and followed her values to find better, more innovative solutions that focused on gifting life to patients.

I think my favorite part is around ten minutes in, when she mentioned that she led her team, “at the ridicule of my colleagues,” to focus on adult adipose stem cells. Though these stem cells were more restricted in their ability to give rise to a variety of other cells, I admire her courage to break from the scientific mainstream (who were only focused on embryonic stem cells at the time) to focus on the least controversial source of new cells.

And, how rewarding it is for her that she and her team discovered that adult adipose stem cells were not only a better source for transplant cells, but through the efforts of other researchers, could also be induced* to be reprogrammed back to the pluripotent state of embryonic stem cells (with their ability to give rise to a wide variety of other cells).

So, now her lab is focused on reprogramming mounds of adult fat cells into fountains of youthful cells that they may use to form other more specialized cells, which will one day be used as cell transplants. (Uhm, I’d gladly donate some. Just sayin’)

She mentioned that the pioneering efforts today could not be possible without the curiosity, courage, and commitment of those medical pioneers that have gone before. They each have their own story. Her story was her journey from organs to cells, a “journey through controversy, inspired by hope that one day we could all experience longevity with an improved quality of life.”

Dr. Lim’s journey started with a mindset shift. What are some of your thoughts on Dr. Lim’s journey? What mindset shift (great or small) have you encountered lately? Have you debated on whether to choose the ‘road less traveled’?

Please share, I’d love to hear from you!

*The researchers named these induced adult stem cells “IPS” which stands for “Induced pluripotent stem cells”

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6 thoughts on “SciFridays: From Organs to Cells–A Journey Through Controversy

    1. I know. I wish I had the mental capacity to do *something*, to be a medical pioneer in some way. I can only trust that there are more people like Susan Lim in this world.

  1. I cannot view the video, however i applaud the work she has done – the moral and ethical questions being raised, do have to addressed seriously, and it is heartening to see that many in this line of research are doing so. The science is brilliant and if the ethical concerns of others could be married up, what a future for medicine awaits us.

    1. I’m sorry the video didn’t work for you–I updated the post with a link to the actual TED talk in case others have issues as well!
      And yes, how inspiring it is that there are people like her in the pioneering community, who see ethical or moral controversy not as obstacles, but as opportunities to be more creative and innovative.

  2. I actually have been following this line of research somewhat and am soooo glad that there are people willing to think outside the box. The scientific community had been hailing embryonic stem cells as the miracle cure-all for so long that a lot of people were ostracized who questioned their effectiveness and were concerned about some of the moral implications. I love that Dr. Lim showed that with a little innovation it was possible to identify alternative treatments that circumvented the problems posed by embryonic stem cells and were far more effective for the patients.

    As a writer I think this is a good message for us. A reminder that sometimes we need to break out of the mold and be willing to re-consider some established notions. We can be creative not only about our stories but about the business side of writing as well.

    1. absolutely! I think it’s interesting that “curiosity” is essential to real discoveries, and yet it seems that true curiosity into new frontiers or less-traveled paths are seen as quackery! As if the person who isn’t using or is opposed to using embryonic stem cells (for example) is likened as someone who is opposed to medical progress altogether. Weird double standard there.

      Thank you for sharing, Sierra. I love hearing your perspective

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