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Susan Lim : Transplant Cells, not Organs


Nature & nature’s laws lay hid in the night. God said let Newton be and all was light.

If we trace the paths of medical science history in the world, it can be easily noticed that we have come a long way. The discoveries aided by technological inventions have paved way for mammoth changes in the way humankind looks at medicine and surgical science today. We have penetrated deep into our own bodies to understand the mysteries of its functioning and unfold the secrets within, with the help of centuries of dedicated research.

Dr. Susan Lim is one of the pioneers of liver transplant in Asia. She performed the first successful liver transplant surgery in Asia and was the first female doctor in the whole world to achieve this. Her patient still survives, 20 years after the operation and has named Dr Susan as the Godmother of her 14 year old son.

Accolades and victories sound good don’t they? What appears easy to us from outside has a very different picture on the other side of the coin. For any transplant to happen, the most basic need is a donor organ which is called ‘the Gift of Life’. It is not a hidden fact that the medical industry is fighting the gap between donor organ demand and donor organ supply which is very huge. Even after relaxing the donor rules to a huge extent, the chasm between the number of people who need a liver and the number of people who can give it is increasing day by day. Every day, more than a dozen people die because of lack of donor organs. And this issue is also accompanied by moral controversies of coercion, forced donations and trading of organs for monetary exchange.

The battle didn’t end for Dr. Lim at the doorsteps of these moral dilemmas. She had to collect organs from prisoners who consented to donate it after their death sentence. Her account of those days are disturbing to a great extent as she recounts her days to begin with the horrible gut wrenching experience of walking down the prison aisle and end with extreme happiness at having saved a life using that organ. She says it took away the sanity of her team. And that was quite likely to happen.

Medicine keeps on changing. Surgery keeps on evolving. The concept of surgery in those days was shifting from big to small, from wide open incisions to tiny incisions, from whole organs to cells. During one such series of pancreas operations in the year 1988 at the University of Minnesota, Dr Lim had the idea of transplanting cells and not whole organs to eradicate this issue of moral controversies surrounding the gift of life.

They say there is always light at the end of the tunnel if you really want to see it. Dr Lim & many other doctors saw it. Those were the days of stem cell research. Some groundbreaking discoveries in this field took place. Scientists were successful in isolating embryonic stem cells from the human embryo. These stem cells had the ability to develop themselves into any other type of cell in the body, be it heart cells, cartilage cells, liver cells et al. This was again marred by moral controversies. The stem cells had to be isolated from the human embryo when it was just 5 days old. This gave rise to research for stem cells other than embryonic cells. In a very shocking discovery, Dr Lim found out that the adipose tissues i.e the fat in our body contains stem cells. And there is literally no dearth of fat in the world! But these cells had a great limiting property. Being adult stem cells, they were mature and couldn’t lend themselves to much differentiation as the embryonic cells did.

Not losing hope is the moral of every story. And so is this one. While the search was still on for stem cells other than embryonic cells, in 2007, two scientists made another path breaking discovery. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan and Jamie Thompson of US found out that the mature stem cells obtained from fat can be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells and can be then used to grow other differentiated cells like heart cells, liver cells, neurons etc. These cells were referred to as iPS cells or Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. This milestone discovery captured the imaginations of media and public alike and there was a horde among scientists to find ways to convert this discovery into a feasible process. If achieved, this has tremendous scope in curing many of the diseases for which any cure is not known to mankind yet. We have a hope that a day will come when diseases like Cerebral Palsy, non-healing bone fractures, Alzheimer’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis & Retinal diseases to name a few can be cured.

It has not been an easy journey for Dr Lim for any of the scientists involved. A hell lot of commitment, contribution and curiosity later we can say that we know something about the human body. Those who have dedicated their life to research and have studied medicine and human body have always agreed that the body holds many more mysteries that are waiting to be unlocked. Their pioneering activities are their own stories. Dr Susan Lim has her own story. Hers is a story of her journey from organs to cells, from saving lives to creating lives, a story of hope in discoveries, a story of brilliance and compassion. And we are sure, someday there will be brighter light at this end if the tunnel too!

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This entry was published on July 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm and is filed under Science & Technology. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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