#ContactForm1 { display: none ! important; }

Monday, June 22, 2009

Science in Fiction: Insta-cloned Organs

What: Masses of undifferentiated cells that are slapped on an injury and heal in a matter of days to replace the lost bone, muscle, nerves, and veins.

Book: Price of the Stars (and the rest of the Mageworld series)

Who: Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

Other Works of Fiction: The Vatta's War series by Elizabeth Moon has something similar, but as quick. In that series the organ is cloned in the lab and attached. I'm sure there are more.

How it would work: Think back to basic high school biology.... every organism starts life as a single cell.

For higher level organisms (sharks, trees, humans...) the cells divide and, eventually, differentiate to perform specific functions. But there is a period of time where the cells are TOTIPOTENT - i.e. they have the potential to become anything on that organism, from a brain cell to a toe nail (or root or dentricle).

The proposed idea takes a bunch of totipotent cells that have no previous genetic heritage (meaning they have no DNA) and you slap them on an open wound and the fusion of the totipotent mass and the victim's DNA create the missing piece of the body.

Could it happen? Scientists are drooling over this idea, I promise.

The problem is that with our current technology we can't create totipotent cells in isolation. We have to snag them from a viable embryonic source.

Not only does that mean killing an organism in potentia, it also means the cells come tainted by a DNA framework that may not be compatible with the DNA of the recipient.

You could take a genetic sample from the victim you intend to patch up and clone a mass of totipotent cells to slap on them, but that would take more time than you want for fast sci-fi first aid.

Do we have anything like this?

What are the chances of us ever having something like this? Low.

Once you jump past the ethics hurdle you get to the issue of cellular control. Here you have a bunch of little cells anxious to be everything under the sun possible for the limited framework of the injected DNA. Fantastic!

Not really.

The other name for such anxious little cells is Cancer. Or, at least, some forms of cancer.

Some cancers are totipotent cells that won't stop growing. They take over the body and destroy working structures. You know, those organs that keep you upright and moving...

For a mass of totipotent cells to be useful for medicine you would have to find a way to control them. Not only to make sure they developed into the right organ (so something applied to a leg wound wouldn't turn into a liver) but to keep the cells from overgrowing healthy parts of the host's body and becoming malignant.

What you might see instead:
Cloning of organs.

The idea here would be that a healthy cell from the patient would be taken to a lab and divided to create a new patch of the donor's organ to replace something that was failing. It's possible that a totipotent or embryonic cell would not be needed if science can find a way to control the division and growth of other cells.

This would take time, but it would make transplants much easier.

The Big Questions is: In your own writing, what kind of medicine do you use? Have you developed it along with your culture? Or are your character still wearing smiley face bandaids?

1 comment:

  1. Herbs. That's about as far as they've progressed. Maybe I'll take it up to the next level and have them make smiley faced poultices. :p

    Interesting about the cancer cells. In cell biology, I'd learned why they keep mass producing until they starve all the good cells to death, but didn't realize that some were totipoent cells.