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Atomic Medicine: the Cold War Origins of Biological Research

Military concerns drove the development of nuclear weapons. But a by-product of this huge deployment of scientific resources by the US and the UK was an upsurge in biological research leading to a new age of regenerative medicine. Alison Kraft discusses the history of stem cell biology.

The detonation of atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 announced to the world the arrival of the ‘atomic age’. Twelve years later, a team in New York led by E. Donnall Thomas reported the first use of bone marrow transplantation in cancer patients. These striking but very different developments may appear unconnected; but both are in fact intimately linked to the history of stem cell biology. In different ways each was important for the identification in the late 1950s of the blood stem cell, the origin of the entire blood system and the first stem cell to be recognised. In the decades that followed, stem cell biology was to develop into a cutting-edge biomedical enterprise that today offers hope for a host of prevalent, debilitating diseases.Amid the contemporary expectations surrounding the prospect of new and powerful stem cell therapies, the atomic heritage of stem cell biology has largely been forgotten. 

 The Manhattan Project

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