Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a masterpiece of science fiction that's remained a mainstay of popular culture for near on two centuries. Incredibly, Shelley first conceived of the story when she was eighteen years old. The first edition was published anonymously when she was twenty, with her name appearing on the second edition five years later. Some scholars even argue that Frankenstein is the first true science fiction story.
In the novel, Shelley imagines a process wherein the remains of deceased human beings could be amalgamated and reanimated. The story was the result of a challenge among Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron to create a ghost story. The three of them spent hours and days together during "the year without a summer" discussing myriad topics including horror and the nature of power, along with its fruits when used properly or improperly.
It's easy to see how such discussions might result in a tale like the one Shelley penned. It is, after all, a story about, if not the misuse of power, then the use of power not sufficiently examined.
Since its publication two centuries ago, plenty of critics and scholars have thought on the questions laid out within Frankenstein's pages. It's become such a major part of popular culture that the name of Frankenstein has become synonymous with the overreach of scientific power. And while the notion of reviving the dead or creating a new creature from the discarded pieces of the deceased was nothing more than a macabre fantasy of the early nineteenth century, modern medical science has seen a version of Frankenstein's experiments come to fruition.
Have we finally reached a point where the fiction of old might become a reality?
External Tissue Replacement
Frankenstein's monster isn't exactly made from scratch. Instead, he's pieced together hodgepodge from stolen parts of the recently deceased. Victor Frankenstein acquires a foot here, a hand there, and he sews them all together until he has the parts he needs, not unlike building a car out of scrap yard spare parts.
In our effort to build a real-life Frankenstein's monster (though, in truth, monster is entirely the wrong word), this part of the endeavor is within the confines of tested science. Though that's not to say it's exactly easy.
Transplantation of limbs is still a fledgling science. While prostheses are still the typical treatment for loss of limb, in some cases, donor limbs can be attached successfully.
Marine Sgt. John Peck, during his second tour in Afghanistan, came into contact with an IED that took his arms and legs. Upon his return home he was fitted with prosthetics, but in 2014 was selected for transplantation of donor limbs.
The procedure took 12 doctors 14 hours to complete. The operation involved trimming Peck's remaining limbs and connecting blood vessels and nerves to the donors' tissues. Though these transplants can be completed successfully, they require a serious commitment on the part of the patient.
According to the Mayo Clinic, finding a suitable donor is difficult. Considerations must be made regarding blood and tissue type as well as compatibility regarding size and muscle tissues, among other considerations. Once completed a patient is committed to a lifetime of immunosuppressants, physical therapy, and regular checkups.
Similar procedures have been completed with other patients to some success. These types of operations can improve the quality of life in patients and go a long way toward improving medical science, though medical science has some way to go toward perfecting limb replacement. It is the hope of the doctors and scientists involved that through the generous sacrifice of donors and the bravery of these pioneering patients that procedures like these will be improved and, in the future, will restore function and quality of life to any patient who needs it.
Internal Organ Transplant
While it might seem that external tissues like hands and feet would be easier to replace than internal systems, the opposite is true. Transplantation of limbs is a relatively new field of research while organ transplantation is now considered routine.
The first successful kidney transplant was completed in 1954. Other organ systems soon followed.
In 1967, the first human heart transplant was completed. The heart of a 25-year-old car accident victim was transplanted into a 55-year-old man. He lived for 18 days. After this procedure, heart transplants took off, with 100 being done the following year, though many patients died due to rejection of the new tissues.
Over the next several decades, advancements were made in tissue typing and immunosuppressants which greatly improved the success rate in transplant patients.
Today, tens of thousands of organ transplants are completed every year. The number of patients on the wait list is much higher.
As if mirroring Victor Frankenstein in our attempt to build a human being from the ground up, the last remaining piece is the brain. The notion of transplanting a brain from one body to another has existed for some time. There have even been efforts to complete such a procedure, but not have yet come to fruition.
Some efforts have been made, however, total head transplants of animals have been completed to moderate success.
Transplantation of a complete brain has, as of yet, not been completed and is not being supported in the United States.
That doesn't mean that research toward brain preservation isn't going forward.
According to an MIT Technology Review researchers have recently harvested pig brains, four hours after death, and restored cellular function.
The brains were kept alive via pumps, heaters, and artificial blood and kept functioning for 36 hours. Yale University neuroscientist Nenad Sestan, who worked on the project, stated the brains could be kept alive indefinitely. Researchers involved confirmed that the brains used in their experiments did not have cognitive function due to a combination of degradation from the delay between death and harvesting along with neuron blockers but Sestan stated that improvements in the process could potentially restore function.
This has led to some speculation that brains could be harvested from recently deceased human beings and kept alive while awaiting a new body.
As a result, a number of researchers within the neuroscience community have published an editorial discussing potential rules and protections regarding experimentation utilizing living brain tissues. Ann Devor, one of the authors of the editorial stated, "we need to remember the isolated brain is not the same as other organs, and we need to treat it with the same level of respect that we give to an animal."
With the final pieces of body part transplantation falling into place, we have to ask ourselves if we're up to the task and whether such a procedure would improve quality of life or create a living horror for involved patients. At current, we're like a child who is capable of taking the toaster apart, but can't yet put it back together. Though improvements in medical science happen every day and we may soon unlock the secrets needed.
It seems likely that in the relatively near future, we might be capable of replacing or reparing any injured body part, bringing Shelley's vision to light in a fashion less horrific than she imagined.
If human organ transplants are any indicator, the good will likely outweigh the bad. While Mary Shelley's tale was one of power unchecked, the quality of life improvements experienced by patients who have undergone organ and tissue donations is evidence of power well used.
Long live Victor Frankenstein.