Frankenstein: the science of reanimation

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It’s not just on a dreary night in November that science fiction can come close to reality. Mary Shelley’s most famous novel Frankenstein depicts a man so obsessed with life and death that he tries to make life from the remains of cadavers. The endeavours Shelley envisioned may not be so far from modern-day scientific accomplishment. From organ transplants to the restoration of activity to dead brains, the question on everyone’s thoughts is will it ever be possible to create Frankenstein’s creature?

Frankenstein has become a common term associated with anything from genetically modified foods to organ transplants. When the first heart transplant was completed in 1967, the first words said to be uttered by the receiver, Louis Washkansky, were “I am the new Frankenstein.” Some say they were said by the surgeon instead, Christian Bannard, but either way, the association between Shelley’s extraordinary novel and research into human organs has always been significant.

Will it ever be possible to create Frankenstein’s creature?

In 2019, the concept of reanimating life was taken to be something close to reality when scientists from the Yale University School of Medicine were able to revive function on a cellular level in 32 pig brains. The pig brains were acquired from animals who were already deceased, and the restoration was assisted using a machine, BrainEx, which encouraged fluids and oxygen to flow back through the cells. BrainEx acts as an artificial pump supplying the brain cells with a fluid similar to blood.

The team managed to identify signs of tissue function in the cells that had previously been decaying. Signs such as the diffusion of the blood-like fluid into the smallest capillaries and the cells responding to a drug as living tissue is known to act. Thus, the experiment demonstrated cellular function could be restored after death. Scientists at Yale still insisted this is ‘not a living brain,’ and while this is still a far call from the assemblage of multiple body parts into a new being, it does allow multiple avenues of research. There are applications for the treatment of heart attack suffers and the study of brain disorders and brain diseases.

The experiment demonstrated cellular function could be restored after death

A central theme of Frankenstein is morality and, as with any groundbreaking research, the reanimation of the brain cells does raise ethical questions on the definition of death and the extent to which BrainEx could be used to restore brain activity, as well as the use of animals in their research. The Yale team insists that they are not attempting to restore consciousness in dead brains and took steps to prevent this too. Instead, their focus is on investigating the brain’s activities and structure.

The reanimation of these cells is still a far call from the creature Mary Shelley imagined. This is not the first time scientists have tried to preserve tissue after death. At the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Alexis Carrel worked on maintaining small tissues samples in Petri dishes by supplying them with oxygen and nutrients. He was even rumoured to have kept a chick’s heart tissue alive after death. The focus of Carrel’s work was investigating a way to grow organs artificially for transplantation. A concept that is even beyond the creativity of Frankenstein, but today is very much a reality.

The focus of Carrel’s work was investigating a way to grow organs artificially for transplantation

Teklesenbet Beyene was the first man to receive a windpipe transplant grown from stem cells in 2011. The creation of new organs from stem cells is not the same as reanimating dead cells, the Franken concept of creating from nothing is an ever-growing field. Could these grown organs ever be considered the same as those we are born with, or are we just creating many new variations of ourselves? So, while the answer to the question ‘Are we able to create Frankenstein’s creature?’ is still a strong no, the reality of distinguishing between the nature of life and death is not so clear cut in biology. Cells, tissues, and organs are just one part of the equation of creating life, and the part they play in conscience and sentience is just as debatable as when Shelley first questioned it in 1818. It is uncertain if other cells could similarly be revived after death, but if brain cells are only the start it is impossible to say what other organs could be revived long after the tissue has died.

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