Maybe you remember the story from last year about the Spanish woman whose trachea (windpipe) had been destroyed by TB, and how a team of doctors in Bristol grew her a new one from her own stem cells? Well, it was a pretty remarkable story, but here’s an interestingly different angle on that story.
Prof Anthony Hollander was responsible for developing the technique of using stem cells in this way and in producing this particular patient’s windpipe.
He recalls this event from his childhood –
One day in 1973 Anthony – a “sickly child” – was off school and at home with his mother, when he found a fatally injured bird in the paved area of their garden in north London. “It was in some distress,” he recalls today. “My mum was too squeamish to deal with it, so I put it out of its misery. For a nine-year-old it was hard to have to do that.” As he remembers it he got to thinking, about death, and about how he might be able to keep people alive. “So I did what all sensible children do when in need of practical help with an idea. I wrote to Blue Peter,” he said. “I can vaguely remember I was thinking about re-routing the blood out of the heart and recirculating it. Then they could fix up the heart and it would be alright again. I just didn’t want that death stuff to happen.”
Blue Peter is a long-running childrens’ programme on the BBC which encouraged interaction with its viewers from the outset. In his letter he described his “strange belief” that he “knew how to make people or animals alive” and asked for help – including a “model of a heart split in half” and “tools for cutting people open”. Well, the Blue Peter programme editor replied to the letter, as she and her team did to every one of the thousands of letters received every week. She encouraged him to seek information for his idea from the family doctor.
Listen to what he says about receiving the encouraging reply –
“If her letter had shown any hint of ridicule or disbelief I might perhaps never have trained to become a medical scientist or been driven to achieve the impossible dream, and really make a difference to a human being’s life,” …….. ” If you had failed to reply, or had treated my letter as a joke (as perhaps others might have done) it could well have altered the course of my life……..”I remember being thrilled at the time to have been taken seriously. Actually, even nowadays I am thrilled when people take my ideas seriously. I know that might sound strange to you. But my way of doing science is to think up a hundred theories, however mad, and work through them until I find one that fits the data.”
Isn’t that an amazing story? Just to make it all the more amazing, it’s emerged now as a story because Prof Hollander recently wrote to Biddy Baxter, the Blue Peter editor, to tell her how important her letter had been to him and discovered that she was in the process of compiling a book of the childrens’ letters and had already picked his out as one of the letters to include. Coincidence?
I’ll finish this little tale with another quote from Anthony Hollander which, I believe, completely hits the spot –
“As adults we can tend to lose the capacity to dream and think big. Children will dream unselfconsciously. I still do that – I still go around telling people ‘these are the things I want to do’. I don’t have time for any kind of scepticism.”
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