|Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. A genetic action figure endlessly regenerating and repairing his body, Wolverine is the archetypal superhero of the modern era, says one professor. And, but for the retractable claws, he is not too far from reality.|
When she was outed as a fraud the other day, Florida’s three-breasted woman revealed a shift in the collective unconscious.
Jasmine Tridevil, purportedly a plastic surgery pioneer, turned out to be an attention-seeker with a prosthetic (now this year’s hottest Halloween costume). But like some ancient Vedic goddess, mixing fear and desire, she was also a vision of the strange future promised by science, in which any organ or tissue, from breasts to brains, hearts and eyes, can be grown from genetic scratch, and used for reasons that transcend mere medicine, such as eternal beauty and superhuman strength.
A key problem, as McGill genetic ethicist Bartha Knoppers said this week, is that medical ethics is ill-equipped to contain or thwart the rise of these “luxury” applications of stem cell science, which already loom in the popular imagination. Put together, the trends of stem cell technologies for beauty, strength and resilience point to a new era of human enhancement, not by integration with computers, but by exploitation of the genome’s eternally replicating power. They herald the age of stem cell superheroes, but also monsters and freaks.
Long ago, in last century’s nuclear age, mythical mutations were created by radiation, in a sinister play on humanity’s newly discovered genetic nature, like Godzilla or Spiderman or the three-breasted prostitute in the film Total Recall, based on a 1966 short story.
Today, though, fear of radioactivity feels dated. Now, all the promise and peril of human nature is wrapped up in stem cells, the mysterious precursor to every kind of cell in the human body, which can grow, with proper instruction, into any new tissue or organ. Doctors have already used stem cells to grow a new trachea for a sick child, for example, and bits of livers and brains and other tissues in the lab.
Cosmetic applications of stem cell technology already abound, climbing the ladder from restoration and enhancement to full replacement of body parts. Military applications include the production of blood from stem cells on the battlefield. Sporting applications, for “stem cell doping” by speeding healing and recovery or increasing muscle strength are not far behind, so close that the World Anti-Doping Agency is monitoring the science, developing a test, and testing a “biological passport,” even as countries such as Uzbekistan openly admit to screening the genes of child athletes, pursuing “sports selection at the molecular genetic level.”
As Peter Zandstra, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, put it at a discussion on stem cells this week for the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, where he is chief scientist, the archetypal superhero of the modern era is Wolverine, who recovers almost instantly from injury, a genetic action figure with eternal youth, endlessly regenerating and repairing his body, never stepping twice in the same river. And, but for the retractable claws, he is not too far from reality.
Unlike Monty Python’s hapless Black Knight, flesh wounds really are only flesh wounds for the stem cell superhero. Lose an arm, grow another. Need another eye, no problem. Want a pair in the back of your head? Tricky, but theoretically possible. A third breast is comparatively easy.
The flip side, as Prof. Knoppers said, is that this regenerative superpower is also shared by the mythical Prometheus, chained to a rock as an eagle eats his liver, only to heal overnight, prolonging his immortal agony.
So there is promise, but also danger, and in between lie massive ethical and legal problems.
“That’s the era we’re in,” said Charis Thompson, author of Good Science: The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Science, and a sociology professor at the London School of Economics.
Ethical implications used to be “downstream” from science, she said. Researchers could do their work behind closed lab doors, in the amoral world of molecules and forces, leaving the moral questions to priests, police and politicians. It worked quite well, she said. Facts were conveniently distinct from values.
“That model just doesn’t work anymore,” she said this week in a discussion in California hosted by the Center for Genetics and Society. Now, stem cell science especially is “in and of our bodies,” and we need the two conversations — fact and value –going on at the same time, in what she calls a kind of “ethical choreography.”
One of the earliest tests of this problem is likely to be sport, according to Dick Pound, a lawyer who served as the first president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and spoke with Prof. Knoppers at the Canadian conference.
“As stem cell technology progresses, there’s a regular monitoring of it by the WADA cell and gene doping panel to see if there may be real potential for doping applications. This committee follows the literature, follows the buzz that’s going around, follows the application of these technologies” Mr. Pound said.
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