Archive for August, 2008

The X-Files-Medical science a-head of it’s time?

Posted in THE GENE POOL:(Science&Sci-Fi) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2008 by redshiftblue

The greatly anticipated X-Files movie, is less sci-fi secrets and more medical marvels and horrors. There is no mention of the aliens planning to invade the earth, despite the fact that it is predicted a mere 4 years from now. Instead, the story revolves around the topic of stem cell research and highly unethical surgeries, whereby a dying man is kept alive by transplanting his head to a series of bodies, in the hope of finding a match with the potential of longevity. A modern day Dr. Frankenstein from Russia carries out these transplant operations without the donors consent.


It’s an interesting plot, if a little low-key. It references the crazy possibilities, which our own increasing scientific knowledge is throwing out there.  We left the TV series talking of UFO’s, abductions, government conspiracies. Challenging ethics and pushing the questions of science upon us, sounds more like the X-Files we knew first. This was an X-Files, where something strange and never seen before was at first afforded a supernatural element but rapidly realised (usually by Scully) to be actually ingrained in the biological world around us. A freakish possibility. An unlikely, if logical, scenario.


Which brings us to asking:how logical is the main premise of the movie? How much is fact, and how much is speculative? Head transplants have been carried out on dogs and monkeys, more successfully on the former. The measure of success is both the length of time the animal survives after the operation, and the extent to which cerebral function is resumed. While Charles Guthrie, the American physiologist, was the first to “create” a two-headed dog by transplantation in 1908, it was the Russian, Vladimir Demikhov in the 1950’s, who produced the two headed dog, possessed of full cerebral function. The transplanted head of Guthrie’s dog only retained the most primitive movements. The key difference between the strategies of the two doctors was the time allowed to elapse between decapitation and attachment of the donor head to the recipient body. For this time period, the head is without oxygen supply, and the neurons are at risk of dying, thus debilitating brain function. Although Demikhov’s surgery was successful, after 6 days his two-headed dog died.


Demikhov’s dog


Unnerving as the dog operations may seem, the experimental surgeries carried out by Dr. Robert White, an American World War II veteran at the County Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio raised the bar on grotesque far higher. In 1962, he achieved a world’s-first by successfully removing an animal’s brain and keeping the brain alive. In 1964, he transplanted the brain of one dog into the neck of another dog, and connected it to the recipient dog’s blood supply, monitoring the brain activity with electrodes. His aim was to successfully keep the brain alive outside of a skull, but the issue of actually proving consciousness eluded him. In 2001, it was revealed to the world that his quest had led him to transplanting the head of a monkey to another’s body, deemed successful since the transplanted head could exhibit facial movements, and react to stimuli. However it was, of course paralysed.


Sketch of White’s monkey plan


While many deemed his operation “grotesque” he maintained that the next step was to carry out the same on humans. He pointed out that in the case of person with irreparable damage to their body or organs, the replacement of their entire body would be ideal. It would offer them a means to prolong their lifespan beyond what is currently possible. The transplant would offer options to those individuals, who would rather be quadriplegic than dead.


The brain-neck experiment by Dr. White


The opposing argument was outlined by Dr Stephen Rose, director of Brain and Behavioural Research at the Open University who remarked; “This is medical technology run completely mad and out of all proportion to what’s needed”. Since the donor head is not connected to the recipient body except by blood supply, he feels it cannot be called a true transplant. There is no real interaction with the recipient body. Indeed, looking at Dr. White’s original interest in maintaining the consciousness of the brain, it would seem his surgeries are driven more by a personal ambition than a true wish to benefit the scientific community.


Basically, head transplantation remains firmly unethical and without purpose unless repair can be carried out successfully on the spinal cord, thus ensuring the individual is not condemned to quadriplegia.  If this barrier could be overcome, then, head transplantation would offer endless possibilities and opportunities. At the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of California, Irvine, spinal cords in mice have been shown to be repaired to some degree by stem cells. Mice which were partially paralysed by the spinal damage, could walk again after treatment. Many scientists, including Dr. Rose, believe we could be better served by researching stem cells (the cells which can be induced to become any cell type in the body), than by attempting large scale and complex head transplant operations. There is potential for treatment of spinal damage and muscular disabilities using stem cells. New, functioning neurons have been shown to be capable of being grown in the human hippocampus. And, in June of this year, researchers at Berkley University, California have been able revive the repair ability of muscle tissue in old mice. They achieved this by altering the biochemical pathway by which stem cells repair damaged tissue.


Quite aside from the problem of spinal cord repair, allowing a donor head to communicate effectively with the recipient body, there is the issue of transplant rejection to be considered, whereby the transplanted organ fails to be accepted by the recipient body leading to an immune attack on the organ. The extent of post operative treatment which could be required to allow an individual undergoing head transplantation to survive, may be too great to render the surgery a benefit at all.


Whether or not we agree with Dr. White’s opinions or consider all the operations carried out to date to be highly unethical, there is no doubt that the progress will continue. The medical and scientific community may condemn the activities of some of its members, but curiosity and ambition have always pushed some individuals beyond what is considered acceptable. The world’s first human head transplant is believed to have already been carried out in Chicago, Illinois. A woman suffering from multiple organ failures and with only a week to live volunteered for the controversial surgery. Perhaps we would rather head transplantation remained only the realm of movies such as The X-Files: I want to believe. I’m not sure we want to believe something like this possible or even watchable. Unfortunately the existence of YouTube means it’s not just Mulder and Scully who get the chance to be horrified.