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The History of Women in Stem Cell Medicine

This women’s history month we wanted to recognize the critically important contributions women have made to stem cell medicine. It would be impossible to completely cover the history of women who have impacted the field, but we wanted to acknowledge some of these pioneers and their work that has helped so many people – and will continue to help even more people over time.

Helen Blau, PhD

Helen Blau’s influence on the field of regenerative stem cell medicine is undeniable. Beginning with a series of discoveries in the 1980s, Blau and the teams she has worked with first established that differentiation of a cell was not necessarily a fixed, final state; rather, cells still require regulation and can thus be manipulated to another state. What that means in practical terms is that Blau and her team determined that scientists would be able to control cells further for a new purpose. This discovery would influence and enable the work of countless other scientists. 

She would go on to pursue this work further, and her work on reprogramming cells and cell fusion would lay the groundwork for mammalian cloning and the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells, which are demonstrating some of the most promise for the treatment of a very wide range of conditions. 

Blau went on to work on improving scientists’ ability to culture cells in vitro, or in more simple terms, growing cells in a dish, outside the human body. Without the ability to culture cells it is difficult to properly research their properties and how they will react to different stimulus or treatment. Blau’s work focused on muscle stem cells and her discoveries in growing these cells revealed a number of properties that held true for other types of stem cells, facilitating faster research on other projects as well. 

Eliane Gluckman, MD, PhD

Eliane Gluckman earned a reputation in the cord blood banking field when she performed the first successful human umbilical cord blood transplant in 1988, in the process treating a 5-year-old boy with Fanconi anemia, a condition that leads to bone marrow failure and often leukemia. Gluckman’s work also successfully showed that cord blood stem cells from an unrelated donor could safely be used with appropriate matching. 

While bone marrow transplants had become an established treatment before this cord blood transplant, Gluckman’s work helped open the door to a much wider range of treatments. Aside from providing another way to safely use hematopoietic stem cells to treat people with serious conditions, the demonstrated safety and efficacy of the treatment helped encourage clinical trials that would lead to further progress in the field. 

Mary Laughlin, MD

Mary Laughlin is an internationally renowned hematology expert who has held a number of important roles that have helped expand the reach of stem cell research. 

One area of her research that has had far-ranging implications is in the transplant of cord blood for adult patients. Cord blood transplants have most commonly been used for children, who typically require fewer stem cells for treatment than an adult would. However, in 1995 Laughlin conducted one of the world’s first cord blood transplants in an adult leukemia patient, helping establish further opportunities for patients in need and identifying standards for these treatments. She worked as a professor of medicine in the field of stem cell medicine for a number of years where she continued to research transplant medicine to help drive the field even further.

Laughlin would also go on to establish the Cleveland Cord Blood Center, which helps match donor stem cells to patients in need. 

Joanne Kurtzberg, MD

Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg is one of the most well-known people in the field of stem cell medicine, but particularly for those involved in cord blood banking, due to the great hope her research is giving so many families. A renowned pediatric hematologist and oncologist, the work her and her team carry out is showing great promise for the development of therapies for autism spectrum disorders, neonatal brain injury, and cerebral palsy.

Kurtzberg’s work is of critical important – autism spectrum disorders are now diagnosed in 1-in-59 U.S. births, and cerebral palsy is the most common motor disability in childhood. 

Aside from the research and clinical trials underway due to Kurtzberg’s work, she’s also directly impacted the practice of cord blood banking. In 1998 she established the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank to help more patients find a cord blood match when needed. 

We also wanted to take a moment to recognize the women who have contributed to Americord’s purpose and successes over the years – without them, we would not be in a position to assist our clients and work towards our mission of helping people live healthier, longer lives.  

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