1st January 1818, a classic was born. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is turning 200, and in honour of this most prestigious of anniversaries, I thought I would write a little something about the science in this story, and how fact is starting to emulate this historic fiction…
The birth of Frankenstein
Upon late nights in a rainy summer by Lake Geneva, a group of friends gathered. To pass the time, they would tell ghost stories, and competed to share the most gruesome, horrifying tales. One of these friends, a young Mary Godwin – later the infamous Mary Shelley – experienced writer’s block. Every morning, she would be asked the question she dreaded, have you thought of a ghost story yet? Her answer was always no. That was until one night when a vision came to her, of a scientist experimenting with the unconventional, and the birth of a horrific humanoid creature.
Well that’s how the story goes anyway. Since then, reanimation, ectogenesis and the stitching together of life has inspired generation upon generation of science fiction writers. But how does the fiction relate to real life science? And does the story still have relevance today?
Tales of Transplantation
The answer to the latter question is yes, more than ever! In November 2017, a Chinese scientist claimed to have completed the first successful head transplant. This however, was using corpses, and unlike our historical monster, these did not reanimate. So who knows if the technique is applicable to live subjects? I myself am happy to not find out!
Transplantation has been around for hundreds of years. The first successful transplants came in the form of skin grafts. Doctors had been attempting these from as early as 600 BC, but success didn’t come until the 1800s. In 1823, Carl Bunger reported reconstruction of a nose destroyed by syphilis, by transplanting skin from the inner thigh. However, most grafts continued to fail, as doctors attempted to transplant layers of skin which were too thick. It wasn’t until 1869, when a Swiss doctor, Jacques Louis Reverdin, noticed that very thin grafts of skin could spontaneously heal. This revolutionized the practice of skin grafting. Reverdin came from the very same town where the young writers had gathered years before; the birthplace of transplantation!
Portrait of Jacques Louis Reverdin | Wellcome collection
It’s what’s on the inside that counts…
Internal organs proved a little trickier to swap. The early 1900s saw corneal transplants, but the first big internal organ to be successfully transplanted was only in 1954, with a kidney transplant between two identical twins. Prior to this, transplants had always failed as hosts rejected their new body parts.
The immune response | Youtube
This is all down to our immune systems. See, the immune system is the body’s natural defence against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, and relies on the detection of antigens, foreign material that is found on the surface of cells. When foreign antigens are detected, it triggers the activation of T and B cells and kicks off the defensive immune response to destroy the foreign bodies. (If you want a more comprehensive overview of the immune system, check out the awesome Crash Course series on Youtube – they also have a whole bunch of other topics and do the SciShow and are a very talented bunch). Anyway, when a new organ from a different person is introduced, the cells in the new tissue all display foreign antigens, hence trigger the immune response and cause rejection of the new tissue.
So, the reason the identical twins are usually fine transplant-wise, is that their genetics mean they display the same antigens displayed on the surface of their cells as the cells of their twin, so the new organ is not recognized as a foreign body. In spite of this, recent studies have found that over time, environmental factors can influence the immune systems of twins, so there may still be a possibility of organ rejection, although this is thought to be fairly unlikely.
How do we overcome organ rejection, especially in those of us not lucky enough to be blessed with a twin? By suppressing the immune response. Back in the early 1950s they tried to do this through radiation, but the real breakthrough came in the form of chemical immunosuppressants. Drugs like ciclosporin which regulate the response of the T cells have made the likelihood of rejection decrease enormously.
And that brings us all the way to the present day. Organ transplants are saving thousands of lives a year across the globe. However, the supply of organs can’t keep up with the demand. In the UK alone, the transplant waiting list contains approximately 6500 people. The future is the harvest of lab-based organs, grown from the patient’s stem cells, eliminating the need for immunosuppressants as the cells present the same antigens as the patient! And the future might not be that far away.
In recent years, multiple research groups across the globe have published their findings on organs grown in vitro, outside the body. Most of these are not yet proper, fully grown organs, but organ-like structures, simpler, smaller analogues. But as research continues, more and more sophisticated systems will be developed. Though this research does have huge potential, what are the ethical implications of growing body parts? And how long is it until we’re able to make a full creature in the lab, just like Frankenstein did?
This post is the first in a series of Frankenstein inspired stories: coming up we’ve got ectogenesis (that’s the science of birth outside the womb, and ranges from traditional IVF to newly developed artificial wombs!), resurrection and regeneration, and much more! Follow us to stay posted!
To discover more of the early science which is said to have inspired Frankenstein, take a look at this awesome article by Inside Science here!
Also, why not take part in some of the extensive 200th birthday celebrations going on across the globe! Check out these websites for a brief selection of some of the activities taking place:
And if you can’t make it to any of the events, then relax, unwind and reread a classic which has inspired innovation over the ages.