Summary: modern science is creating new organs and manipulating DNA. Can Science Create Life?
Almost exactly two centuries ago, 18-year-old Mary Shelley wrote a story about a German scientist named Victor Frankenstein creating life. In the story, Frankenstein assembled body parts from cadavers—it being considered too difficult to reconstruct them from scratch—which he then attempted to reanimate with electricity.
Ironically, the subject of scientists creating life has arisen again. But today’s scientists have gone far beyond Frankenstein’s ambitions. If Mary Shelley could see what scientists are doing today, she’d be amazed. Yet some of these developments are so routine that we take them for granted.
Reanimation of a corpse using electricity may still seem far-fetched, until we consider that something like it has become commonplace. Patients whose hearts have stopped beating are literally shocked back to life on a daily basis in emergency rooms and operating theaters. In fact, you can purchase a defibrillator for use at home! There are even some surgical procedures where the person’s heart is intentionally stopped, only to be started again later.
Harvesting organs for transplantation, even from a cadaver, has also become commonplace. In fact, scientists are taking this a step further. Doris Taylor, director of regenerative medicine research at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas, has been working on “ghost hearts.” A ghost heart is the heart of a rat or a pig that has been soaked in a solution that washes away everything except what is called a “protein scaffold,” the physical framework of the organ. Then blood or stem cells from a living donor are injected into the “ghost heart,” which is then placed in a bioreactor—an apparatus that pumps blood and oxygen into the living cells—and lo and behold, after several days, the heart begins to beat!
So far, Dr. Taylor has done this only with rat and pig hearts, but it seems likely that someday soon she will be able to take a heart from a human cadaver, wash away the organic cells, repopulate it with blood or stem cells from a living donor who needs a transplant, and produce a living human heart. Since the heart would be populated with the recipient’s own cells, there would be no danger of rejection and no need for continued use of antirejection drugs.
Doctors hope to eventually be able to produce hearts, livers, pancreases, kidneys, and even lungs—and all of them free from the dangers of rejection or the need to suppress the immune system. Indeed, this is not just about the future.
In 2008, a 30-year-old female received a new trachea that was grown using the InBreath bioreactor created by Harvard Apparatus Regenerative Technology (HART), marking the first regenerative organ transplant surgery. Five years later, she was doing well. “She has an excellent quality of life,” says David Green, CEO of HART in Holiston, Massachusetts. “She has a family and a job. It’s really hard to imagine a better clinical outcome.”