In her most recent column, Catherine Heffner discusses whether ‘grow your own boyfriend’ joke gifts could ever become a reality.
Valentine’s Day has come and gone. Shops and restaurants have finally taken down their decorations, and feelings of nausea are beginning to fade. Amongst all the cutesy valentine’s cards, you might have seen some of those ‘grow your own boyfriend/girlfriend’ joke presents. I fear they may be severely disappointing, unless of course a foam figurine is what you’re looking for in a partner… But there is hope! While nobody’s quite worked out how to grow a whole, loving human yet, bioengineering is quickly advancing to a point where it’s possible to grow quite a few elements of them.
So what parts of your significant other can you grow? Believe it or not, scientists have been able to successfully grow many body parts such as bladders, ears, tracheas and jawbones for some years now. Scientists have even managed to create beating heart tissue. Hearts removed from mouse cadavers can be decellularised with detergents. The remaining extracellular matrix then acts as a scaffold and can be injected with stem cells. This structure develops in the petri dish into a beating heart.
This application of stem cell therapy could be very exciting for heart disease treatment. Human heart cells (cardiomyocytes) have poor regenerative capabilities, and heart transplants from donors can carry a high risk of host rejection. If a heart could be grown from the patient’s own stem cells, the risk of rejection would be greatly reduced.
On a smaller scale, it’s even possible to grow structures such as teeth. Last year, Chinese scientists managed to grow human molars inside mouse kidneys using stem cells from human urine. Yep. Human stem cells formed the enamel while the mouse cells developed into the rest of the tooth. Not sure I’d want that one transplanted into my mouth…
This all may sound like science creeping into the realms of magic, but it’s important to remember that regeneration is carried out to some extent by every species on the planet. This can look like simple tissue renewal, or can be as dramatic as the regrowth of entire body parts. For instance, salamanders are known for their ability to regenerate whole amputated limbs within a matter of days. But regeneration in humans is also commonplace.
Every one of us will lose and replace a full set of teeth. We regenerate our skin every two weeks, our bones every ten years. Our liver also has a remarkable ability of regeneration, and can do so from only one quarter of its tissue. This was famously illustrated in Greek mythology whereby, as punishment from one of the gods, Prometheus was tied to a rock and his liver was pecked out by an eagle. This continued on a daily basis throughout eternity; all thanks to the regenerative potential of his liver tissue.
The concept of growing your own boyfriend aside, there are serious applications of this for our world. With an ageing population, we’ll soon see more and more people with the need for tissue replacement. By 2050, it is estimated that one in four people in the UK will be over 65. With this rise in age comes a rise in the prevalence of age-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, organ failure and stroke. The WHO already places heart disease and stroke as the top two leading causes of death according to 2011 figures. With biotechnologists looking for treatments for these illnesses, the need for regenerative medicine is becoming ever more apparent.
But what if we get to a point where bioengineering can successfully create replacements for human body parts, whereby we can effectively regenerate all of our failing organs. Could we go further? In May 2010, Craig Venter (biologist and entrepreneur renowned for being the first to sequence the human genome in 2001) announced that he and his team had succeeded in making the first synthetic cell. A DNA sequence was composed on a computer and the chromosomes were built out of four chemicals. These were then transplanted into yeast which were transferred into a recipient bacterial cell and eventually transformed into a new species. And voila – life.
As crazy as programmable cells might seem, it’s fast becoming the norm. Recombinant DNA technology has already become a very commonplace process, being done at university and sometimes even at high school level. In his TED talk ‘The Next Species of Human’, Juan Enriquez discusses the continuation of the evolution of man from Homo sapiens into a species he calls ‘Homo Evolutis’. He defines Homo evolutis as “hominids that take direct and deliberate control over the evolution of their species and others”. He argues that biotechnologies such as the ones previously described may be taking us faster and faster down this road.
So it looks like those grow-your-own boyfriend packets aren’t getting an update any time soon. But at least you can start with growing their heart…or their teeth. And who knows? Maybe the same technology will mean that your grandchildren or your great grandchildren will be part of a completely new species.
Catherine Heffner, Online Features Columnistbookmark me