with Roshan Yoganathan and Lisa Willemse
Are zombies real? And yes, we mean creepy, flesh-eating, run-for-the-hills zombies — not that state you find yourself in on a Monday morning before you’ve had a double espresso.
Unless you’re a zombie yourself, it’s quite likely you’ve picked up on their current popularity in gaming, film and television (i.e. The Walking Dead) and in more serious discussions, such as this blog on how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse from the CDC. Like us, you’ve probably noticed that zombies and regenerative medicine (RM) seem to have a lot in common, namely, the process of regeneration that might cause dead or damaged tissue to become “alive” once again. Have you ever worried that scientists could accidentally end up creating the modern day equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster?
Well, we work with RM scientists (in fact, Roshan IS one of those scientists). Here’s what we know about zombies and regenerative medicine to put your brains at ease.
First, the definitions:
A zombie, as defined by its Haitian and African origins, is an animated corpse resurrected back to life by mystical means, such as witchcraft. The word revived is also used (Wikipedia).
Regenerative medicine utilizes the process of replacing or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function. Regenerative medicine also empowers scientists to grow tissues and organs in the laboratory and safely implant them when the body cannot heal itself (Wikipedia).
As you can see, there are some (loose!) similarities in the definitions. Zombies are creatures that are brought back to life through the ministrations of witch doctors. RM brings damaged tissues and organs back to life through the ministrations of highly educated doctors.
Now, the comparison:
Frankenstein’s monster is perhaps the most well-known zombie of the modern era. While author Mary Shelley did not provide details of exactly how Victor Frankenstein created his monster, we do know that it was assembled from stolen body parts from corpses.
Chemistry, electricity and alchemy all played a role in the creation of Shelley’s monster; however, modern film and pop culture adaptations have also suggested that nanotechnology, molecular biology and, yes, even stem cells and biomaterials, could be used to bring a “Frankenstein” to life.
Setting aside the fact that an RM scientist’s work is dedicated to helping mankind, not destroying it, could we create a zombie à la Frankenstein? While it’s true that biomaterials are used extensively in both the zombie-creation and RM fields, our ability to create such a monster is extremely hampered. Even though the FDA does not regulate what materials can be used in zombies (because their bodies are already dead), acquiring body parts from graves and/or hospitals is not as common today as it was back in Dr. Frankenstein’s day (one could say the practice has, er, died out).
No problem. We now have stem cells and tissue scaffolds, which can produce heart, eye and many other tissues. In theory, we should be able to create an entire organism. But — not so fast! (We did mention this was theoretical.) In practice, these techniques are a long, long way from a modern day Frankenstein’s monster.
Of course, this also fails to take into account the fact that stem cells are of zero use to zombie-creators because the zombie physiology is totally different and, might we add, crawling with maggots. Does a zombie even have use for such life-giving cells? A zombie’s fate is to feed on living flesh in perpetuity, while a stem cell’s fate is perpetual renewal.
Finally, zombies are ice cold and unreal, and regenerative medicine is way cool and very real.
If you are a zombie or RM expert and have anything to add to our list, please send us your comments.