Peering through a microscope in Madison, Wisconsin, I watched my heart cells beat in a petri dish. Looking like glowing red shrimp without tails, they pulsated and moved very slowly toward one another. Left for several hours, I was told, these cardiomyocytes would coalesce into blobs trying to form a heart. Flanking me were scientists who had conducted experiments that they hoped would reveal whether my heart cells are healthy, whether they’re unusually sensitive to drugs, and whether they get overly stressed when I’m bounding up a flight of stairs.
It was snowing outside the office-park windows of Cellular Dynamics International (CDI), where I was observing an intimate demonstration of how stem-cell technologies may one day combine with personal genomics and personal medicine. I was the first journalist to undergo experiments designed to see if the four-year-old process that creates induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells can yield insight into the functioning and fate of a healthy individual’s heart cells. Similar tests could be run on lab-grown brain and liver cells, or eventually on any of the more than 200 cell types found in humans. “This is the next step in personalized medicine: being able to test drugs and other factors on different cell types,” said Chris Parker, CDI’s chief commercial officer, looking over my shoulder.
CDI scientists created the little piece of my heart by taking cells from my blood and reprogramming them so that they reverted to a pluripotent state...