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.”
And she isn’t the only one. In 2011, a man with inoperable cancer of the trachea was given only two weeks to live. But using the patient’s own cells, physicians generated a new trachea for the man. They then removed the diseased trachea and replaced it with the newly generated organ, and instead of dying, at last report the man was still alive and well. Impressive as these developments are, however, they involve only reusing living tissue, not the actual creation of life.
However, scientists are going beyond living tissue to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the very building block of life. Every living thing contains DNA, which forms what is called a double helix—essentially a twisting ladder. Each “rung” on the DNA ladder connects what scientists call a “base pair” made up of four chemicals designated with the letters C, G, A, and T. They are pairs because a C always connects to a G and an A always pairs with a T. They can pair in either order, that is, a C on the left and a G on the right, or vice versa. The same goes for the A and the T. This DNA ladder contains the information that directs the growth and development of every aspect of an organism. Your DNA determined your eye and hair color, your approximate height, the size of your vocal cords—every tiny detail of every cell.
After half a century of experimentation, scientists are just now learning how to isolate that twisted ladder, clip a section out, and insert a new section in its place, thus altering the ladder and modifying what the ladder produces. They can also build ladders from scratch, using the four chemicals for base pairs. This amazing and complex process is called “sequencing,” and it comes very close to what we would consider creating life.
For example, a research team led by Craig Venter of America’s J. Craig Venter Institute has successfully produced the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. “This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made,” Venter said, “and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer.”