Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stem Cell Creativity: The Uncanny Whitehead Connection

There was a Whitehead connection in reports yesterday about the researchers who successfully reprogrammed mice skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. A source for many of the media accounts is at

The connection is the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at Cambridge, MA, affiliated with MIT. A Whitehead Institute group led by Richard Jaenisch was one of the three that accomplished the new technique. The other U.S. research was a collaborative effort between Konrad Hochedlinger of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Kathrin Plath of UCLA.

The Nature article says the approach was pioneered last year by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University. He transferred four specific proteins known as transcription factors into the skin cells using retroviruses, triggering other genes that allow the cells to become “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPS). Yamanaka headed the third group which announced the results this week, replicating his findings and presenting a second generation of iPS cells.

Actually only a moment of creativity connects the name Whitehead with this research. The namesake of the institute is not Alfred North Whitehead, who taught at Harvard from 1924 through 1937, but Edwin C. “Jack” Whitehead, who made big bucks as a medical equipment innovator and became a philanthropist. In 1982, after ten years of interaction with MIT, he co-founded the institute with MIT Nobel laureate David Baltimore.

The institute’s webpage describes the creative decision that gave Jack Whitehead his name. See

Born Edwin C. Weiskopf in New York City in 1919, to Edwin C. and Bertha Weiskopf, he got the nickname Jack when a housekeeper took him out to a local park and her friends thought he looked like the child film star Jackie Coogan. So goes the family story, anyway, says his eldest son John Whitehead, who adds cheerfully that “the good looks failed with time.”

“My father's parents divorced when he was a preteen, and his mother went to work selling real estate in New York,” says John Whitehead. “She changed her name to Whitehead to avoid the anti-Semitism that might otherwise have affected her business, and that was how Jack Weiskopf became Jack Whitehead.”

The moment of creativity was Bertha Weiskopf's decision to translate her last name into English. So Jack Whitehead got his name before Alfred North Whitehead came to Cambridge, MA. And the Whitehead Institute of Cambridge has no direct connection with the philosopher of creativity who lectured and published in Cambridge for 13 years.

But isn’t the symmetry remarkably uncanny: an innovative entrepreneur named Whitehead founded a creative institute named Whitehead, in a place where an innovative philosopher named Whitehead lived and taught—and the institute participates creatively in what may be an historical turning point in stem cell research?

No comments: