In Frankenstein, the novel by Mary Shelley, a young man becomes enraptured with the natural sciences. One thing in particular calls his attention: life, what is it, and where does it go when we die?
Before we even get down to the gruesome way that turned out, Frankenstein the scientist sets out a warning. He insists that he won’t share his secret lest it lead the reader down a similar path of destruction to the one that he journeyed.
Apparently, however, not everyone got the memo. That said, you can’t blame people for wanting to raise the dead – regaining lost loved ones, great men and women and those “gone too soon.”
But while most people consider this to be a pipe dream – or a jumping-off point for a horror or science-fiction yarn – others see it as aspirational. And, furthermore, they’re working on it today.
Earlier this year, a team of scientists put their heads together. Like Frankenstein, they questioned the nature of death and how “dead” a person has to be before they are past the point of being revitalized.
It’s a scary idea – but there’s more. Significantly, the team approached the Institutional Review Board, an ethics reviews committee in the United States, to ask for permission to conduct a bizarre experiment. And that permission was duly granted.
In fact, the scientists asked for permission to use 20 brain-dead human subjects for their research. Brain death isn’t true death. No, the body is still alive, but the blood-flow to the brain has ceased, and the organ will eventually liquefy. The body has lost “integrated function” and usually subsequently dies, too.
However, people can be artificially kept alive for long periods of time while brain dead, or “clinically dead,” in many countries. With the help of life-support systems, the body continues to function. Indeed, its blood flows, it digests food, it grows, and it can both become ill and recover.
Bioquark – the firm behind the ReAnima initiative – wants to see if brain-dead people can be revived. Its experiments will take place at Anupam Hospital in Rudrapur, a city in northern India.
Here, scientists will pump peptides – the small proteins found in all human cells and tissue – into the spinal cords of the brain-dead subjects. It’s hoped that this will consequently trigger neurotransmitters in the spine that are key to reviving brain function.
Twice a week, the “patients” will also receive injections of stem cells. Basically, these cells are blank slates and can take the form of whatever cells exist in the part of the body they’re injected into.
The idea is that through reigniting the synapses in the brain, the brain will gradually be brought back “online.” The researchers will then watch for any sign of action after the injections.
The scientists are hoping to see results in the first three months of the trials. And any kind of positive result would, of course, be profound.
The chief executive of Bioquark, Ira Pastor, really sees this as a kind of war on death. “This represents the first trial of its kind and another step towards the eventual reversal of death in our lifetime,” he said.
Even if the scientists fail, like Frankenstein, they hope to gain real insight into what death actually is. “Through our study, we will gain unique insights into the state of human brain death,” added Dr Sergei Paylian, the founder and president of Bioquark.
It’s not really certain to what extent this is just a stab in the dark. Some people do come back from being brain dead without futuristic medical attention, so it can happen. Still, happening of its own accord and by chance is a lot different from bringing 20 people back from what is, essentially, death.
Pastor is modest about what his team expects to achieve immediately, but his long-term goal is definitely ambitious. “It is a long-term vision of ours that a full recovery in such patients is a possibility, although that is not the focus of this first study, but it is a bridge to that eventuality,” he said.
However, not everyone is convinced. “Saving individual parts might be helpful, but it’s a long way from resurrecting a whole working brain, in a functional, undamaged state,” said Dean Burnett, who is a neuroscientist at Cardiff University’s Centre for Medical Education in Wales.
Indeed, Burnett added that the idea of resurrecting the patients was stretching the boundaries of known science. “While there have been numerous demonstrations in recent years that the human brain and nervous system may not be as fixed and irreparable as is typically assumed, the idea that brain death could be easily reversed seems very far-fetched, given our current abilities and understanding of neuroscience,” he said.
Nevertheless, we may yet end up with real-life Frankenstein’s monsters on our hands. Let’s just hope those doctors are all up to date on the latest zombie-slaying protocols.