Iconoclastic Houston Scientist Tackles Medicine’s Big Questions

By Kyrie O’Connor
Houston Chronicle.

The heart is a ghost.

Here it is, suspended in a glass container called a bioreactor, not just bled out but stripped of its cells so that all that remains is the fist-sized collagen hull that forms its architecture — white and nearly translucent. You can’t even tell it once beat inside a pig.

Doris Taylor, Ph.D., the director of regenerative medicine research since 2012 at the Texas Heart Institute of CHI St. Luke’s Hospital, is in charge of this heart and others.

Someday she wants to introduce human stem cells into the scaffolding and grow a human heart that will beat in a human body.

The numbers for heart failure are huge and growing, with some 5 million cases in the U.S. and a half-million more diagnosed every year.

Hearts available for transplant number in the low thousands.

Interest in this research is as high as the demand. If you use the patient’s own stem cells, Taylor says, just imagine: no transplant from a dead person, no fear of rejection, just the patient’s own heart created anew.

Taylor is at the forefront of this area of research, and everything about her life marks her as an iconoclast — from her childhood in Mississippi to her unwillingness to approach scientific questions conventionally.

Her approach could best be described by her favorite painter, the Catalan surrealist Joan Miro: “The works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness.”

The fire in the soul is evident when Taylor talks about stem cells. Get her rolling on this topic, and her liquid brown eyes shine. “It’s very cool, the stuff we’re doing,” she says.

Taylor believes in stem cells — not that they are the answer to all of medicine’s questions, but that they hold secrets humans are just beginning to untangle.

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