Stem cells and the modern Prometheus

Author: Ben Paylor, 08/10/11

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Paradise Lost, Milton

This harrowing quote from Milton, if framed as a first-person narrative of a stem cell’s fate, paints a troubling (and highly unrecognized) perspective of the field. These same lines also open Frankenstein, a novel from 1818 written by the young Mary Shelley, that has gone on to become one the most studied pieces of romantic literature of all time. Many people might be unaware that the full title of the novel — Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus — immediately sets the tone for the course of Victor Frankenstein’s tragedy by including reference to Prometheus,
the Greek god of forethought who created mankind and was later cursed for stealing from Zeus. Mary Shelley is not the only author who has thought it fitting to connect their story with this classic tale of ambition over reason. The term “Modern Prometheus” was first coined by Immanuel Kant, describing his view of Benjamin Franklin as a man who had no fear of venturing into a realm of forbidden knowledge.  Prometheus 1 The connection lies in the story of this titan who stole fire from Zeus and gifted it to mankind. When Zeus discovered the treachery, he punished Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain in the Caucasus, a place fittingly between the home of the gods and the home of men. In addition to his banishment to thetop of the mountain, each day Zeus’ eagle would arrive to eat Prometheus’ “immortal” liver, with the liver regenerating in time for the eagle’s return the following day.

Some have suggested that inherent in this tale — which has provided material to countless introductions for regenerative medicine papers, presentations and even clinical trials, a potentially ill-fitting historical reference — is the concept that the liver possesses a remarkable capacity for regeneration. This reference presupposes the thought that Greek mythmakers knew of the liver’s regenerative properties, and chose this organ as the site for repeated injury without long-term consequence. If this were true, then it is remarkable that the concept does not reappear in medical history until the early 19th century, with anatomists such as Jean Cruveilhier and Gabriel Adral first describing the livers regenerative properties in detail.  This knowledge has been thought to be derived from two sources; hepatoscopy, the art of reading livers as the word of the gods and the study of human anatomy, with Greek healers having witnessed evidence of the regeneration themselves.

An excellent and critical review by Carl Power and John Rasko refutes these claims. They hypothesize that the root of the Prometheus myth and its stem cell connection is little more than a coincidence. The convincing article first attacks the theory that the Greeks knew about liver regeneration on a historical level, examining the opportunities in which scholars of this civilization would have had to witness the biological phenomenon of liver regeneration, eventually arriving at the conclusion that it is highly unlikely such knowledge was present at this time.  They go on to rationalize the myth by describing how everything about the gods— blood, limbs, and bodies — was generally perceived to be immortal. Thus the regenerating liver was not a unique phenomenon. Further, they describe how the liver was considered to be the very heart of life in these times. The thought, therefore, of having one’s “seat of desire” continually eaten out would be a fairly dramatic punishment, thereby rationalizing the choice of this organ.

As remarkable of a coincidence as this may be, the foretelling of the ability of the liver to regenerate is probably not as dramatic as one might think. Perhaps more surprising is the numerous stem cell researchers who have adopted this tale as an engaging classical reference for their work and thereby (perhaps unwittingly) invoked an ancient story of reckless ambition resulting in undesirable consequences. Although those who oppose stem cell research may feel that an eternity of hepatic torture by a hungry eagle fitting punishment for stem cell researchers, it is important to note that Prometheus’ actions were for the ultimate benefit of mankind – the gift of fire.  It might be more fitting to draw a parallel to the actions of those individuals and companies whose ambitions result in tragic consequences, but for most stem cell researchers it seems more likely that this is simply a lack of attention to detail in choosing a classical reference for their work.


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Ben Paylor

Ben Paylor

Ben Paylor completed a Bachelor of Medical Science at the University of Western Ontario, which included a 1-year research exchange to Umea in Northern Sweden. Following his Bachelors, he completed a 2-year Masters of Philosophy in Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Experimental Medicine program under the supervision of Dr. Fabio Rossi at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on understanding the role of tissue-resident mesenchymal progenitors in repair processes of the heart. Outside of science, Ben is an avid pianist and tennis player, as well as being very interested in the field of science communication and policy.  The writer and director of several award-winning science films, Ben is also the co-founder and director of InfoShots (, a science-based animation studio that is currently producing the Stem Cell Network's StemCellShorts series. Ben is the Chair of the Trainee Communications Committee at the Stem Cell Network, sits on the National Advisory Committee of the high school outreach program StemCellTalks and is a 2012/13 Action Canada fellow.
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