Stem Cells On Exhibit at S.F. Science Museum

For the first time, mouse stem cells are now on display in a museum. An exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium, the pioneering hands-on science museum, tries to shed light on the highly discussed cells. Laila McClay reports.

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Few scientific endeavors these days are as controversial as stem cell research. Everyone talks about it: politicians--there was a hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill--actors, religious leaders. But who's actually seen a stem cell? In a first-of-its-kind exhibit, a San Francisco science museum now has live mouse stem cells on display, and reporter Laila McClay went to take a look.

LAILA McCLAY reporting:

San Francisco's Exploratorium is technically a science museum for kids, but it's really one of those kids-of-all-ages kinds of places, where every exhibit is one that you're encouraged to touch and interact with. And now through the end of the year, the public can actually see stem cells and learn more about the science that has been so central to recent national discussions. The scientists behind this exhibit seem exactly like proud parents, unable to talk about it without smiling. Co-director of the stem cell exhibit, Kristina Yu.

Ms. KRISTINA YU (Co-director, San Francisco Exploratorium Stem Cell Exhibit): It's beautiful. The cells are beautiful. It's life and they're visually, you know, very arresting. And to be able to share that with the public, you know, to give them the chance to see something that they've heard about but never actually seen is, like, this--it's just an amazing thing.

McCLAY: The exhibit has two main parts. There's a microscope that visitors can drive with a joy stick and a track ball to focus and move around the dish that contains the mouse stem cells, clusters of reddish blobs on a white medium. Visitors can also see a short video of the mouse stem cells approximately 10 days later when they've turned into pulsating, beating heart cells. Co-director Charles Carlson explains.

Mr. CHARLES CARLSON (Co-director, San Francisco Exploratorium Stem Cell Exhibit): If you actually look across a field of cardiac cells that have been derived from the embryonic stem cells, every single mass will have a different contractal rate, so that what you can see is that each area that has differentiated actually has its own little rhythm. And so they'll be a clump of cells that's beating at one rate and another clump that's beating at another rate. And its kind of a miracle of life, in one sense, whenever you see those kinds of things.

McCLAY: So what do the Exploratorium's visitors think of the pulsating cells? First, we hear from the little kids.

Unidentified Child #1: It looks nasty.

Unidentified Child #2: Well, I'm not sure yet, but it looked pretty disgusting to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCLAY: For the bigger kids, however, it has a little more meaning.

Unidentified Teen #1: You know, after hearing a lot about it, it's nice to hear. What is stem cell basically? What is it, you know? It's putting information in context with something that is visible.

Unidentified Teen #2: I guess it just helps you understand, like, the controversy.

McCLAY: For co-director Kristina Yu, the exhibit is something that she and her colleagues couldn't even imagine being able to do a few short years ago. For her, this is a welcome democratization of science.

Ms. YU: Well, I think a lot of the basic science that's going on right now is something that tends to happen behind closed doors. And to be able to give the public access, to be able to see what researchers are seeing and to sort of try to mimic the experience of discovery and visualization that researchers really take for granted is like--it's a really valuable, powerful thing. Because how many people get to see, you know, real live stem cells?

McCLAY: For DAY TO DAY, I'm Laila McClay.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More DAY TO DAY just ahead from NPR News.

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