Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Organlegging and REPO! The Genetic Opera

Imagine the horror of a future in which organs are for sale - and can be repossessed for non-payment. Now imagine that tale told with rock music, singing and dancing. That would give you REPO! The Genetic Opera, touted as "Rocky Horror meets Blade Runner", which is coming soon to the big screen. The movie takes place in the near future where a biotech company, GeneCo, finances organ transplants. That is high risk in more ways than one:
"They’re not just buying them for health reasons. In this future it’s kind of like the next phase of plastic surgery. Upgrading your body parts, upgrading your internal organs has become a fashion statement. It’s legal for the organ financing companies to repossess your organs if you don’t make your payments on time. Our story is about one of these organ Repo Men, and his 17-year-old daughter [Shilo], who doesn’t know what her dad [Nathan] does for a living. It’s kind of her coming-of-age story discussing about the world outside and, of course, daddy’s dark secrets, and all put to music."

There have been many science fictional futures where human organs are an expensive commodity: Robert Silverberg's short story "Caught in the Organ Draft", the organleggers in Larry Niven's Known Space universe*, and the sale of organs by those desperate for money in Frederick Pohl's Gateway, all spring to mind. Ben Zimmer points out in the Oxford University Press blog that some people have started to use the term "organlegger" to describe real trafficking of human organs, so regular organ trading really that unlikely a future.

But what about repossession? A year ago a patient at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center became the first known recipient of a heart that had been transplanted before. It had not spent very long in the first recipients body, however, because that patient died on the operating table. The second transplantation was performed six days later. Even more impressively, a liver graft was retransplanted thirteen years after transfer to the original recipient. So, if the organ is still healthy, why not use it again? There are a number of technical reasons why reuse of a healthy organ might fail:
The heart already has been exposed to the tissue and antibodies of two people, which increases rejection risk and requires extra vigilance on the part of cardiologists and specialists in immunology. Also, because the heart’s vessels already have been grafted once, a second procedure is more complex and potentially time-intensive for surgeons. In addition, the heart muscle itself may be stressed from lack of oxygen and the inherent trauma of two operations.
I suspect we'll be eventually be able to overcome those issues. I've seen some roughly used repossessed cars, though, and I'm not sure I'd want a kidney in the same beat-up condition.

REPO! The Genetic Opera isn't due to be released until April 25, but there was a sneak peek at the SXSW festival in Austin. Ain't it Cool News has two wildly different reviews: one guy loved it, is still humming the tunes and thinks it will be a new cult classic. A second viewer thought it was horrible, and noted that 20 people walked out of the screening. I'm thinking that a gory movie with bad acting (Paris Hilton has a major role), bad singing and a cheesy plot might just be the recipe for packed midnight screenings on college campuses around the country.



  1. Interesting concept but this one has passed it's prime. With the ability to create a new organ from a single cell of your own body in two weeks, this concept has become engulfed by the waves of singularity. Sorry. :)

  2. I should have posted this link so you could see for yourself, morning is not my best time :)

  3. Anonymous9:24 AM

    More like Repo Man meets Sweeney Todd. The gruesome (but unavoidable) side of transhumanism.


I've turned on comment moderation on posts older than 30 days. Your (non-spammy) comment should appear when I've had a chance to review it.

Note: Links to Amazon.com are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.