Life As We Know It

We currently live in a society that holds prevalent the ideas if something is broken, it can be fixed, if something is imperfect, it can be thrown away and started over, and if something is unwanted, it can be discarded altogether. When applying these ideas to artwork or infrastructure, it seems no harm is done. Yet society tends to not only apply these ideas to inanimate objects, but also to human beings. Nose too wide? Rhinoplasty. Tummy to large? Liposuction. Fetus predicted to have disease? Abortion. Although not everyone chooses to “take advantage” of these opportunities, they do exist, and recent experiments may help them evolve further in the future to include altering one’s personality traits.

The basic plot of some of the world’s most beloved science fiction novels has finally come to life – growing brains in laboratories. Scientists of the Austrian Academy in Vienna have used human pluripotent stem cells to grow organoids – 4 millimeter masses of cerebral tissue that mirror 9 month old fetal brains. The feat is incredible; to imagine that stem cells taken from adult human skin and genetically reprogrammed to mimic embryonic stem cells have the ability, with some guidance from those in white coats, to multiply and divide into the most complex of all human organs. After a mere 20 days of growth in the lab, organoids possess features similar, but not identical to the brains of a 9 week old human fetus [4]. Although the organoids lack blood vessels and are unable to process cognitive thoughts, the artificially nurtured cells are able to form several distinct parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and cerebral cortex [6]. Such regions are not organized as they would be in a developing human’s brain, but they are present, and can still be used to learn more about the human cerebrum. The study’s team leader Juergen Knoblich, a stem cell researcher at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna, compared the masses to a car: “you have the engine, you have the wheels, but the engine is on the roof,” Knoblich said. “The car would never drive, but you could take that car and analyze how an engine works [2].”

The number of doors for medical research and pharmaceutical design that these small masses have opened is innumerable. In particular, researchers seek to further understand a plethora of rare brain disorders that only occur in humans, such as microcephaly, a disorder that causes patients’ heads to be significantly smaller than normal [1, 4]. Never before have scientists been able to study these kinds of diseases as they do not develop in the brains of laboratory rats, the “typical” experimental subjects. However, skin cells taken from microcephaly patients are able to be manipulated and developed into organoids that possess symptoms of the disorder [4, 6]. Scientists will now be able to study the brain more intricately and effectively than ever before, unlocking a world of infinite possibilities.

The thought is wildly fascinating, and yet, just as terrifying. Although the organoids are currently miniscule and pale in comparison to actual complex human brains, they do, however, provide hope that one day fully functioning human brains could be grown in the lab. Such a development would unlock even more possibilities; possibilities that would surely spark debates over the ethics of being able to wield human brains in the lab. Imagine patients requesting new parts for a brain destroyed by tumors, or parents of children with disabilities seeking to cure their son or daughter. Surely in a society that grants couples the freedom to pick and choose their child’s physical features with fertilization techniques, the idea of picking and choosing personality traits would arise. Perhaps brain transplants would be discussed, seeing as many other organs can already be removed from one being and placed in another, remaining fully functioning. As seen with the recent rise in numbers of plastic surgery; the American Society of Plastic Surgeons cites a 98% increase since 2000, especially among children and teens, individuals are constantly striving for perfection and willing to take the risks to achieve it [3, 5]. If individuals are willing to go under the knife, to risk their lives, for a bigger chest, a smaller nose, a thinner waist, would they further be willing to risk their lives to be smarter? More outgoing? More business-savvy? Just think! If scientists were able to grow and tailor human brains to the exact desires and specifications of crazed parents or insecure individuals, our world would never be the same.

What would be the consequences of such procedures? What other developments could result from the generation of the very organ that makes humans human? The possibilities are truly infinite; but just because they’re possible, does not mean they should always be pursued. With great discovery comes great responsibility, and as exciting and as helpful as these small organoids may be, they may also be the first step in creating a dangerous world where picking and choosing every detail of a person is possible; his personality, his desires, his abilities. Yes, it is far off and extreme thinking, but it is also necessary, for blindly walking down such a path, unaware of the challenges that lie ahead is irresponsible and could have severe consequences. For now, all is safe in the world and both the physical and personal makeup of newborns is left to largely left to nature, but all should beware, for someday the creations of Dr. Frankenstein may become tangible.

References

  1.   .D.A.M. Editorial Board. “Microcephaly.” PubMed Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 13 Nov. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.’Brown, Eryn. “Scientists Grow Tiny Brain ‘organoids’ for Study.” Los Angles Times. LA Times, 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  2. “Cosmetic Plastic Surgery on the Rise in 2012.” Chart. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  3. Lancaster, Madeline A. “Cerebral Organoids Model Human Brain Development and Microcephaly.” Nature 501 (2013): 373-79. Nature.com. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7467/full/nature12517.html>.
  4. Plastic Surgery for Children on the Rise. FOX News. N.d. FoxNews Online. Fox News, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  5. Sanders, Laura. “Tiny Human Almost-brains Made in Lab.” Science News 21 Sept. 2013: n. pag. Science News. Disqus, 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Image Credit: Science News

Laura Winalski is a first-year biochemistry student at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is also earning a minor in both Spanish and Leadership Studies. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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