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U of M researcher Doris Taylor
New U researcher seeks novel treatments for cardiovascular disease
By Deane Morrison
From M, winter 2004
Five years ago, Doris Taylor caused a stir in the medical establishment when she and her colleagues at Duke University announced they had repaired damage to rabbits' hearts with cells from the rabbits' thighs. The cells, called myoblasts, normally mature into skeletal muscle--the kind we use to move around--but inside the heart, they grew into cells that resembled heart muscle. The work opened a new avenue for treating heart attacks and congestive heart failure, but left Taylor wary of raising people's hopes. "After 1998, I got hundreds of phone calls from patients, asking, 'Do you work with small children?' or saying, 'This is my mother's first chance in 10 years,'" Taylor recalls. The callers' palpable suffering drives Taylor to perfect the system; at the same time, it instills a determination not to rush a new therapy to market with inadequate grounding in science. "People wanted to move forward very fast," says Taylor of the response to her rabbit study, "but it's important that we do this right--that we underpromise and overdeliver." In November, Taylor will continue "doing it right" when she moves to the University of Minnesota to fill the Medtronic Bakken Chair in Cardiovascular Repair. As a focal point in the search for novel treatments for cardiovascular disease, she will work with stem-cell pioneer Catherine Verfaillie and other faculty in medicine, biomedical engineering, and related fields--a prospect she finds exciting. But Taylor doesn't just fight for heart disease patients. She also takes political stands for those who suffer in other ways. "I love politics," says Taylor. "It's one way I've focused on changing the world." She served for several years as president of the People's Alliance, a North Carolina organization advocating affordable housing, better access to education for the poor, social and economic justice, and other progressive causes. A native of Mississippi, Taylor studied science at Mississippi University for Women, but she took a data processing job after graduating to see if she would like something different. Apparently not. She went back to school and earned a doctorate in pharmacology. While holding a postdoctoral position, she studied gene expression in heart muscle and skeletal muscle. But after working with Duke colleague Bill Kraus, she switched her focus from genes to cells. "After we're born, heart cells stop dividing," Taylor says. That means hearts cannot regenerate injured tissue the way skeletal muscles, which retain a supply of myoblasts, can. "What's exciting is that we put myoblasts in the injured parts of hearts, and nature, to some degree, knows what to do with them," explains Taylor. She says the University has all the pieces in place to develop innovative and effective means of heart repair. Moving from the South, Taylor is familiarizing herself with "the whole concept of basements, snow shovels, and garages" and looks forward to learning how to cross-country ski. "I believe the universe is perfect, and we all have a path to follow, and I'm excited this is mine," she says.