Mankind’s fascination with death has seemingly reached an all-time high. Zombie movies like World War Z and Zombieland made hundreds of millions of dollars, The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on TV, and Game of Thrones has captured the imagination of audiences worldwide (no spoilers). But reanimation of the dead has always been the stuff of fiction and fantasy.
However, if a team of scientists in Philadelphia has their way, Frankenstein could soon come true.
I’ve written previously about head transplants possibly becoming a reality, but the doctor proposing that wildly implausible feat is planning on using a living patient and a new living head. Now, the doctors and scientists at the biotechnology company Bioquark want to bring the dead back to life.
In early May, Bioquark received ethical approval to test their experimental series of treatments on brain dead patients, first in India, then reportedly in the United States. According to their clinical trial data, they plan to enroll patients who have been declared brain dead due to traumatic injury. They will inject a cocktail of proteins and stem cells into the sac that surrounds the spinal cord, followed by transcranial laser therapy and nerve stimulation. Phase one will attempt to regenerate only the brainstem, which is where the breathing center is located, to see if the subjects can breathe spontaneously. In the unlikely event they are successful, future phases will attempt to reverse brain death.
Brain death is defined as “irreversible loss of all functions of the brain, including the brainstem,” though in some countries death of just the brainstem is considered equivalent. And though you can live without kidneys due to dialysis, artificial hearts can pump blood, and liver transplants are now considered nearly routine, life without the brain is literally impossible.
The human body has a remarkable ability to heal and regenerate. Cells are constantly turning over, replenishing the stomach lining, creating new skin and blood cells, and healing wounds. But it is well established that the central nervous system, including the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord, do not have this ability. This is why people paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries are paralyzed for life. In some situations the brain has some plasticity, where other portions pick up the slack of injured or dead brain cells. If the spinal cord is incompletely damaged, some (or all) movement can be restored. But when the entire brain dies due to traumatic injury or lack of blood flow, the game is over. Dead brain cells have no capacity to heal or regrow. But this is exactly what Bioquark somehow believes they can reverse in their Reamina project.
In a recent interview, Bioquark’s CEO Ira Pastor said, “With amphibians, you can blow their brains apart, in some case remove them entirely, and the brain grows back. We’re focusing on developing proteins and other biomolecules to recapitulate these dynamics in humans.”
Setting aside the sheer implausibility of regrowing human brain tissue for a moment, this study begs a much larger question: should they?
The easy answer for anyone who has ever dealt with losing a loved one too soon, is “yes of course they should.” But even if the technology is feasible, regenerating a brain is not the same as growing a kidney in a lab or generating skin in a petri dish. The brain is the center of life. It is the absolute basis of who we are. When the brain dies, the memories, the personality, the human being inside, dies with it. Regenerating the brain would be generating a person without memories, without a self. A new person.
While this may not sound like a bad thing at first, just stop for a moment and think about the ramifications. When this new person wakes up, family members might initially be elated, but it would not be the mother or father or child they had lost. Mom wouldn’t be mom. My sweet little girl wouldn’t be my daughter at all—she would be someone else entirely. Losing family members is hard enough as it is, but losing them twice is downright cruel.
Each new scientific advancement comes with a price, and with each new advancement limits must be set. For example, when cloning became possible, governments and scientists quickly stepped in to assure that people would not clone themselves. If somehow phase one is a success and the technology is confirmed, Bioquark should focus not on reversing death, but on helping stroke victims and brain injuries where the person who recovers would still be the same person.
That would be putting good science to good work and could benefit millions of disabled people.
Bioquark’s CEO said, “This represents the first trial of its kind and another step toward the eventual reversal of death in our lifetime.” But death is a natural part of life.
We are born, we live, we (hopefully) contribute to the betterment of society, and we die.
What the trial actually represents is the specter of near immortality.