“How tiny lab-grown HUMAN BRAINS are giving big insights into autism”—Singularity Hub

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about how tissues and organs from aborted human fetuses are valued for medical experiments. (More on that another time here.)

Those “harvested” tissues are useful, but come from aborted fetuses . . . an issue which raises a host of legal and ethical issues, and offends many people. 

What if there were a way to generate human brain tissue, not from a fetus, but from stem cells generated from healthy adults?

In other words, suppose you could let a lab technician take a small sample of the flesh on your hand, and, hey presto! you might soon have small globules of brain tissue for researchers to work with.

But then the question, Why would you want a brain in a jar? One reason, among many: if you or your children were suffering from neurological disorders or brain abnormalities, such as autism. Then there might be no need to take actual brain samples . . .  or to wait while those abnormalities are studied in experimental animals (which may or may not provide results transferable to humans).

It’s not happening full-out just yet, but the work is underway at Cambridge University by Dr. Madeline Lancaster and team. Here’s the link to the article at Singularity Hub

Another question that may come to mind: How does the possibility of growing replica human brains tie in with my medical bio-technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH: Playing God with body, soul and biotech?  

Excelloent question! You'll find the answer at the top of this blog, or you can can check it out on Amazon.  I hope you will.

Big step taken toward achieving the "Holy Grail" of regenerative medicine

British scientists have now taken cells from a mouse embryo and, "flipped a genetic switch" in the DNA, and then injected the product into another mouse with a defective organ, where those injected cells grew into the whole organ of another mouse. (In that case, it was the thymus, which relates to  the immune system.)

The work was done under the lead of Prof. Clare Blackburn, of the Medical Research Council / Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. The most complete article I've found is by Rebecca Smith, medical editor of London's Daily TelegraphHere's the link

You can also find a shorter piece by Pranav Dixit in Gizmodo. Here's that link

 If you've keeping up with this blog, you'll have seen other stories about growing replacement organs. So what's distinctive about this?  This is reportedly the first time the organ has been grown inside the target creature.

When can we expect to find something like this happening for humans?  According to one scientist, maybe ten years and tens of millions of pounds for research. But by then, odds are the products will relate to other elements in the quest for radical life extension.

Need a new brain? Why not grow your own?

Well, maybe not quite yet. But work is underway.

In Austria, researchers took both embryonic stem cells (i.e. from human embryos) and adult skin cells, then did some "lab magic" and in about a month the cells grew and self-orgaized into what the researchers termed "brain-like organoids" 3-4mm in size that showed "neural activity".  

Think of it!  A few flakes of skin can become the startings of a human brain. Now that's not to say that these litle bits had consciousness, that's many more steps ahead.

They have survived a year (as of when the article went to publication in the journal Nature,) but have not grown any larger, apparently because at this point there is no blood supply in. (But other research in other labs is focusing on generating bio-artificial  blood vessels.)

This work was reported on in  Britain's New Scientist , BBC News , Washington Post via Reuters , Siongularity Hub  and others .

What about the ethical issues of growing even a tiny  human brain?  The researchers are aware of the issue, and the Austrian team does not want to see larger human brain specimens grown now, as that would be "undesirable."

Gary Marcus, in a New Yorker article, looks at this same research, though taking a much longer look at the implications  of where this kind of work may lead decades or a half-century from now.

 "But we’ll also need to confront immense ethical quandaries. What rights does synthetic brain tissue have? Should a 3-D-printed brain have the right to vote? To an education? To terminate its own life? (Or to not be terminated?) For now, these questions are still just another round of thought experiments. But it’s more likely than ever that such thoughts might some day be held by just another brain in a jar."

Beyond all that, there's still one other big issue: even if we can "grow"  a complete human brain, where is the mind?   That is the biggie we tackle in  my technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH --Playing God with Body, Soul, and Biotech,  . . . though suggesting an approach other than bio-science.

Spraying human stem cells to regenerate severely burned areas--in four days!

Imagine collecting a burn patient's own stem cells from an unburned part of the body, placing them in a growth solution for an hour or so, then spraying that solution of human stem cells onto the raw, burned area . . .  and in four days having the patient's skin looking fully back to normal.

Well, you don't have to imagine it, it's not future science fiction, it's here and now, as reported by National Geographic

Mind you, growing human flesh to put over burned areas is not new--among others, Organogenesis has been producing that kind of regenerated skin since the 1980s. Trouble is, that method takes weeks, and to protect the patient against infections, an "immediate" new skin is better. And it's here, though still experiemental.

Here's the link to the   National Geographic video  (via the site Big Geek Dad, which is a great source for all sorts of interesting, sometimes off-beat stuff).


Printing human tissue: moving toward 3-D printing of replacement human organs

It seems that few days  pass that I don't come upon some article or TV/web news report on topics relating to  my techno-thriller A REMEDY FOR DEATH (Playing God with Body, Soul and Bio-tech). Here are a few examples of what's turned up recently:

Example: about a week ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a  short piece  by Daniel Akst, "Tissue that's fit to print" on some  new work at Harvard (and a book describing that work) on the subject of using 3-D printing to create layers of tissue based on human cells.  The difficulty, until this work, has been in printing a vascular system to nourish the new tissue.

Another example: yesterday I was reading through Bloomberg Business Week (March 24-31, 2014) and came on Caroline Winter's article "Printing Medicine" on Andrew Hessel and his work at Autodesk, where theyare designing software that may help bring about cures for cancer . . . and who knows what beyond. Part of the work is done in conjunctioin with a startup named Organovo, which "uses bioprinting technology to manufacture human tissues" (see paragraph above).  

Sorry, at this point I am unable to find the online link to the article (I read it in my old-fashioned print copy!)  but I expect it will be up on Google or Bing before long.

BUT as I looked for it via Google and "printing medicine + bloomberg," I came upon not only pages upon pages of relevant articles, but particularly this one from a month or so ago, further making my opening point.  This, from Bloomberg  (that's only Bloomberg, not Bloomberg Business Week), I came on this article:  "3-D technology may someday print up new livers: health.)  

I'm running short of time at the moment, but plan in another post here to make the  link between my technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH,  and how it integrates much of this new medical technology. (If I may modestly say so, the early drafts of REMEDY had concepts that pre-figured what we're reading now!  And there is still stuff in REMEDY that is way ahead of the curves of bio-tech, human stem-cell technology, the mystery of consciousness, neuroscience, tissue engineering , synthetic biology, regeneratiove medicine, the quest for immortality-- and the ethical and legal implications of putting all those pieces together.

Medical ethics-- "Tampering with embryos is tampering with human souls" suggests article in London Daily Telegraph

If you're on this page, you likely know that my technothriller A REMEDY FOR DEATH deals with, among other issues, questions of medical ethics, including organ and tissue regeneration, cross-species "trading" of tissues and stem cells, and the ultimate question of, When does death in fact occur?

In this blog, I've included a lot of my earlier research used in working out A REMEDY FOR DEATH, and I'm still adding new articles and studies that I find with some or a lot of relevance to the book.

Hence you may be interested in the opinion piece in London's Daily Telegraph "Tampering with embryos is tampering with souls"  by Jacob Rees-Mogg, a member of the British parliament.  The piece picks up from a debate in the House of Parliament on the issue of  "three parent embryos – or rather mitochondrial transfer".  

Mr. Rees-Mogg points out three as-yet unsettled issues with the idea of blending "parenthood" from three people:

  1. Technical: do we yet know enough about how to do this?); 
  2. Ethical (involving both medical ethics and morality: "There may be unknown consequences of tampering with the genes of an embryo, and for the unreligious there will be mental issues to be faced by those who have three parents. The gravity of the change is such that it should not be made without the most careful thought and properly tested research.)
  3. Legal:  "This is a self-evidently dangerous road to start down as although the technique cannot at this stage affect eye colour, eventually there will be therapies that will. Once this line has been crossed the argument against going further is merely a matter of degree rather than absolute. Its current aim is small, that ten children each year that might have been born should be replaced by ten different babies. This is not a major problem yet the solution is a fundamental change in our understanding of our own humanity."

I'm  not going to go further, except to add that in his bio, Mr. Rees-Mogg demonstrates exceptional wisdom and prudence by stating clearly " He is not on Twitter."  Amen to that! I say.

By the way, if you object to the word "soul" in his article, you're welcome to adopt the terms "conscious essence" within the "Vehicle" -- terms that some of the characters use  as alternatives to "soul" and "body" in A REMEDY FOR DEATH.

"Scientists enhance intelligence of mice with human brain cells" -- follow-up

 A post here last week --"Mice given human brain cells become smarter"  linked to a piece in Discover Magazine.

Here's a more extended account of what seems to be the same research.  (I say probably, as it is not clear from the Discover item where the work took place.)

In the work reported in the IEET (Institute for Ethtics and Emerging Technologies), written by George Dworsky    Dworsky IEET report, he writes,

"To conduct the experiment, the scientists created human chimeric mice — mice that were endowed with human glial cells.

("Chimera" --there's that word again, one we're going to be hearing much more of as science moves on.   A chimera, in this context, is a blend of  human with animals of some kind or another, to date mostly chimps and mice.)

"We did this by using a narrow glass micropipette to inject 100,000 human glial progenitor cells into each hemisphere of the developing mouse forebrain," said Goldman. This resulted in the widespread integration of human glia into their brain. Once the mice reached adulthood, a large proportion of their forebrain glia were essentially human.

May I intervene here to (modestly) point out that much the same was done by the fictional neurosurgeon/researcher in my technothriller A REMEDY FOR DEATH in his work with Chimp Donnie?

Back to IEET:

"To mitigate any ethical concerns, Goldman told io9 that the grafts were delivered into postnatal animals, they were of cells that could not be transmitted to offspring, and they did not involve neuronal replacement."

In other words, they made sure that (a) these "ensmartened" mice weren't going to pass on to their babies, and (b) the implanted human cells were not from an aborted fetus, but rather "from human skin cells reprogrammed into induced pluripotential cells." 

Which implies that human skin cells can be reprogrammed into brain cells.  Hmm, does that mean that when you, as the saying goes, "put your foot in your mouth" you are ultimately adding foot cells to augment the brain-power you just failed to demonstrate by what you said? I wonder.

"Mice given human brain cells become smarter" --Discover

A "chimera" as the term is used in the fields of regenerative medicine, bio-artificial organs, organ regeneration, and others, is a combination of humans and primates (or, now, humans and other animals).

So now we have a report via Discover Magazine that human brain cells from an aborted human fetus have now been implanted in mice . . . and it seems "the presence of human cells made the mice's brains function better". 

Just what that means is still being determined. No reports of whether these mice are smarter than cats.

Joking aside, I am very aware of the legal and ethical implications of taking human brain cells and implanting them in a creature of another species.

Quite some time back,I started what became my technothriller A REMEDY FOR DEATH with a scene of a neurosurgical researcher planting aborted human brain cells into a chimp to see if that would increase language abilities.

This was my fiction, and seemed  to be so extreme that it would set up the legal/ethical situation.  I wanted to shock, to get readers thinking, This should not be!

My agent at the time sent it to some New York publishers, and the most memorable reply came from a well-respected editor who said, in effect, "This is totally impossible." Times have changed.  

Interestingly, in that Discover piece you'll see some back-and-forth comments by readers on the two related issues of (a) taking cells from aborted / deceased human fetus for the sake of research; and (b) the ethics and implications of moving human brain cells to non-humans, thereby creating chimeras.

As one of the characters in A REMEDY FOR DEATH puts it, "You're opening very dangerous doorways! Once they're open, there's no stopping what may come through from the other side!"

Watch how a lab uses 3D printing plus living human cells to create an implantable human ear

In this blog for the the technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH: Playing God with Body, Soul, and Bio-tech, we've spoken  before about  3-D printers being used in growing human body parts, as well as  other developments in the field of bio-artificial organs:
  • "Need a new body part? No problem. Just use a bio-printer to produce it." Here's the link
  • And, "Creating artificial organs: New 3D printing technique could speed up progress." Here's that link

Now researchers at Cornell have developed a process for creating an implantable human ear to replace ears lost to injury or incorrect development. As described, it's very simple: 1) Laser scan a human ear; 2) print that out on a 3-D printer; 3) add living human cells; 4) wait a while, and 5) there you have it!

Well, actually, like most things technical, it's not quite that simple.  And not something to be tried in your home lab.

Want to know more?

  • From Discover Magazine: "Watch this: 3D printing an implantable ear."   Link  This includes a graphic overview as well as a video with the lead researcher.
  • From the London Telegraph: "Scientists create artificial ear using 3D printing and living-cell gels".  Also a graphic overview and video, as well as a more detailed article. Link





A REMEDY FOR DEATH Ah, but what IS death? Two interesting articles

"What's the difference between life and death? We're fretting too much about the distinction." --that's the title of an article by Druin Burch, that I saw in Slate this noon.   (The broader title sets the context: " Want to save lives? Don't worry so much about defining death.") 

It drew my eye because of the link to some of the activitiy in my medical technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH: Playing God with Body, Soul, and Bio-tech.

The article also picks up on a new book by Janet Radcliffe Richards (the Oxford Professor of Practical Philophy!), entitled THE ETHICS OF TRANSPLANTS: WHY CARELESS THOUGHT COSTS LIVES.

The overall points raised revolve around when is it legally/ethically acceptable to "declare death," in order to remove organs for transplantation to someone who needs them?  Yes, those organs can save lives, but what if--what if--the donor isn't quite finished living?

Which brings us to another article, "Organs taken from patients that doctors were pressured to declare brain dead: suit " 

That appeared first in the New York Post, September 26, 2012, and was picked up quickly in several other spots.  The lawsuit cites four examples of allegely improper organ harvesting. In one of them, a drug overdose victiim's body was about to be "harvested" when one of the attending nurses noticed that she "was being given 'a paralyzing anesthetic' because her body was still jerking."  

In another case, cited in the suit, a 19-year old auto accident victim was allegedly "still trying to breathe and showed signs of brain activity, the suit charged.  But doctors declared hm brain dead under pressure from donor-network officials. . . "

Hmm, better stay safe till the doctors and lawyers and judges (and no doubt legislators will chime in, as well) get it all worked out.

Or will the issue ever be settled?