Regenerative Biology: Have We Discovered the Fountain of Youth?

Doug Melton, of Harvard's Stem Cell Institute, speaks of a new era of medicine in his Floating University lecture. Medicine will no longer aim to simply fix you if you have a disease or injury, but replenish you in order to maintain your young and vibrant state.

What's the Big Idea?


Less than one hundred years ago a routine bacterial infection could be a death sentence. The discovery of penicillin changed all of that. We're now on the verge of a similar revolution in medicine says Doug Melton, a biologist and co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, in his Floating University lecture, What's Up, Doc? Is Biomedical Research Really Close to Curing Anything? According to Melton, developmental biology and regenerative medicine promises to unlock the powerful potential hidden within our own cells.

For instance, in a previous post, Melton details an experiment in which he turns embyronic stem cells into beating heart cells. Yet in order to understand the basis for regenerative medicine, we first need to understand the human body’s ability to divide, grow and specialize cells.

Melton points to an example from Greek mythology, in which the Titan Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to the mortals. Zeus punishes Prometheus by having him chained to a rock and then sends an Eagle to peck away at his liver every day. As Melton points out, "Prometheus was quite lucky," as the liver is the only organ that our bodies are good at regenerating. If the Eagle had pecked out other organs, like his heart, "he’d have been a goner." 

Prometheus bound

Today, however, thanks to embyronic stem cell research, man has acquired God-like powers that would make the Almighty Zeus envious. Melton describes how “man-made” stem cells could soon be used to reverse incurable degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

Regenerative biology can be used to replace tissue and body parts and can also be used to understand the root causes of disease. Melton says these advances will lead to a condition of "healthy aging," in which doctors are not merely aiming to "fix you because you’ve had some disease or injury, but rather just replenish your body to maintain its young and vibrant state."

One of the goals of Floating University's Great Big Ideas course is to explain to students the rewards of studying a given field, whether it is Physics, Investing, or in this case, Medicine. If you choose Melton's field, you will be participating in a discipline that will "inevitably lead to the possibility of changing our bodies in a way that was previously unimaginable."

For the rest of us, advances in regenerative medicine will still be hugely significant, as we will be given the regenerative powers that Prometheus lacked, and the conditions for "healthy aging" that eluded, as legend has it, Juan Ponce de León in his quest for the Fountain of Youth.

Related Articles

How schizophrenia is linked to common personality type

Both schizophrenics and people with a common personality type share similar brain patterns.

(shutterstock)
Mind & Brain
  • A new study shows that people with a common personality type share brain activity with patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.
  • The study gives insight into how the brain activity associated with mental illnesses relates to brain activity in healthy individuals.
  • This finding not only improves our understanding of how the brain works but may one day be applied to treatments.
Keep reading Show less

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less