Regenerative Stem Cell Therapy and the God Switch: Cloning Human Organs for Transplant

Skeleton, or scaffold of a dead Cholla cactus.
Skeleton, or scaffold of a dead Cholla cactus. | Source

January 10, 2013

How exciting, yet earth-shaking, can science be today? If you thought cloning humans or test tube babies were an issue that raised a lot of alarm and ethical and religious controversy, wait until you hear about this. Scientists are dabbling about with the cellular biology that might lead to humans becoming immortal. It's theory now, but here is some science presented in a less complicated way in an attempt to show the connection between the God Switch and human immortality.

God Switch? What kind of switch is that? Recently, bio-scientists have discovered proteins that control a gene and can be used with the gene to encourage the production of stem cells. Stem cells, for those of you like me who are deficient in biology, are the basic cells of the human body which can be prompted to become any of the "mature" cells in our bodies: skin cells, brain cells, heart cells, pancreatic cells, etc. In other words, these proteins act as a switch instructing the adult cell to transform itself back to its original basic cell nature - the cell becomes a rejuvenated cell.

Up until now, a method of creating pluripotent stem cells (non-embryonic stem cells) required the injection of a virus containing four genes into an adult human cell. The God Switch presents a method not requiring the use of virus. To repeat, pluripotent stem cells can differentiate into any of the cells in the body. They are very similar to embryonic stem cells - stem cells that are present in a fetal developing child - and they show much promise for therapies to treat very serious illness.

One way of treating some of the illnesses that plague man is to create new organs to replace worn out ones. To give a specific example, stem cells have been cajoled into becoming throat cells in patients who suffered from cancer. These cells were then placed on top of a flexible plastic base resembling a pharynx, also known as the throat. After growing in rich media under controlled conditions, these cells covered the "modeled" throat. Why is this important? Because if the human immune system believes the throat is "real" due to a covering of proper throat cells, rejection can be eliminated. The throat appears to the immune system to be completely normal. This "organ" was surgically implanted in a man from Iceland - and the same idea used to help several other people, including another person in Spain. Thankfully, this man has survived symptom free for 15 months carrying on normal activity. The cells have actually grown more and matured - which is what you want to occur. Think of all the reconstruction that could possibly be done in the future to help replace damaged tissue.

Stem cells have also been used in the laboratory to create human organs. These creations are limited, but show promise. Skin, blood vessels, stomachs, and bladders have been created from the cells of ailing children. These hollow organs have then been successfully implanted. Called bio-artificial organs, these would be organs created from scratch in the lab and evolving into livers, spleen, brain, etc. So far this technique has been used just to create the hollow organs. Dense organs such as liver, lungs, and brain are being researched now with the possibility of their creation out into the future. This particular method of harvesting a person's own organs was first contemplated in the 1930s, and up until now, had been the focus of inquiry into building new human organs. But recently, with the advent of the God Switch, a new technique is being investigated. One can see how this focus on creating a completely new organ would bring into question moral values and certain basic tenets of religion. Most religions have a belief that the prime mover, the creationist, or God is the only entity who should, and can, create and control life. Being able to extend life indefinitely through regenerative medicine would challenge pretty sacred beliefs.

So what is this new technique of building organs? Scientist have decided that an alternative and more promising way to produce replacement organs is to use the fibrous and porous material that the human body makes to support tissue cells. The scientists provide conditions for the body and its scaffold to regenerate its own living cells which results in the creation of new organs. This material can be thought of as an organ skeleton. Damaged organs harvested and treated in the lab will slough off cells and leave only the skeleton or scaffold behind. A very crude analogy would be to hang a deer from your porch until there is nothing left hanging but the skeleton. Stem cells implanted on an analogous human structure will subsequently grow forming the desired organ. Then, the tissue would be the donor's and yet not grown outside the body from just a few cells. The individual donor is creating his own parts. Another analogy from my neck of the woods can be drawn from Cholla cactus wood. When a Cholla cactus dies and falls, the soft tissue surrounding it rots away. What is left is cactus wood, the scaffold for the plant. See the photo to the right. Now, imagine such a structure coming from an animal and being impregnated with stem cells for, let's say, an elephant artery. Such a part could be used to replace a damaged artery.

But let's not forget that the key to all of this is being able to grow stem cells. The discovery of the proteins that stimulate genes to produce stem cells is the salient discovery that makes organ replication completely feasible. The porous scaffold, as it is referred to, has been isolated in rat organs. Once the scaffold no longer has tissue cells connected to it, new stem cells can be placed in it and promoted to grow. Organs of other animals have also been grown this way. Scientists do warn that there is no way of telling when and how many organs can be produced.

Our body is a complex structures of organs and connective tissue. It's complexity has dazzled many a doctor. We humans, being the most inquisitive of creatures, are always pursuing the bounds of knowledge. When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, it challenged the orthodoxy of the church - the emotional upheaval that followed can be judged from the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. More recently, the use of human embryos for the collection of stem cells was outlawed. Folks from the religious right believed they had had their fundamental views of the sanctity of human life challenged. Those with debilitating disease fought hard to use the embryos for research into regenerative medicine - in particular, Parkinson's disease. It seems that both groups need not continue to be so alienated with the discovery of the God Switch, although it seems logical that the name will probably spur controversy.

So, rather than viewing the discoveries discussed here as creating human life, perhaps we can think of it as using human life to reproduce itself. After all, no one is claiming to have discovered how to make a cell, right?

Oh dear, now physicists are talking about a God Particle! Others are talking about Singularity. Hold on to your seats!

© 2013 John R Wilsdon

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