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The Stem Cell Renewal Theory: The Other Big Paper of 1953


Charles Philippe Leblond -- His stem cell renewal theory was shocking in 1953. Photo courtesy John Bergeron, McGill University

The year 1953 is generally considered the year zero for molecular cell biology with the publication of Watson and Crick’s celebrated Nature paper on the structure of DNA. But there was another big paper in 1953 by Yves Clermont and Charles Leblond of McGill University that appeared in the American Journal of Anatomy. It contained a discovery nearly on the order with that of DNA. Working in the rat testes, Clermont and Leblond described a population of undifferentiated cells that divided to produce spermatozoa but also to maintain their own undifferentiated ranks. The researchers called them “stem cells” and their hypothesis the “stem cell renewal theory.” Unlike DNA, Leblond’s theory of “plentipotent” stem cells met a storm of criticism but in the fullness of time, “stem cells” turned out to be real and the hypothesis correct. Few researchers cite 60-year-old papers but if stem cells scientists were still crediting Clermont Y & Leblond CP, Renewal of spermatogonia in the rat, its 60-year impact factor would be off the charts.

In Montreal, McGill’s Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology has put up a page to mark the 60th anniversary of the stem cell renewal theory paper. Leblond had a very long and extraordinary professional life (he died at 97 in 2007). We can only refer the curious to Wikipedia for a quick summary. Leblond was also an early and influential member of the ASCB. He joined in 1963, served on Council from 1969 to 1971, and received the E.B. Wilson Medal, the ASCB’s highest scientific award, in 1982. 

—John Fleischman

Created on Tuesday, May 14, 2013

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