Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Frankenstein's Dog and Stem Cells

Apparently (fictional) scientist and physician Dana Scully doesn't keep up with the medical literature or know how to use PubMed - at least that's the implication of the new X-Files Movie I Want to Believe. She also isn't too big on medical ethics, either. As the Wired Science blog reports, in the movie Scully is trying to find a treatment for a boy with an "incurable" neurological disease:

When nothing works, she turns to -- i.e., Googles -- stem cells. She gives no details, even to other doctors, and we don't even know whether the cells are adult or embryonic (though given her locale [a Catholic hospital], I'll hazard a guess). A helpful montage of official-looking research documents informs us that it's all "highly experimental."

Over the objections of a lugubrious hospital administrator and, ultimately, they boy's parents, Scully goes ahead with the treatment, which involves injecting the cells -- a pinkish goo in a syringe labeled, "stem cells" -- into the boy's brain. (Who knew that she was a regenerative medicine specialist? Or that doctors can apparently have "highly experimental" stem cell therapies FedExed overnight?)

And it's even weirder. When she's a-Googlin' stem cells one of the results is some old Russian research involving the amputation and reattachment of dogs' heads, which has basically nothing to do with stem cells. And, of course that's a breakthrough for the case she and Mulder are investigating. As Merideth Woerner at io9 puts it:
Seeing these pictures makes her believe that [the crimes she and Mulder are investigating don't involve] a black market operation but a Dr. Frankenstein lab. She pieces this together from google? Isn't she a doctor? Wouldn't she know a little more about stem cell research? How did amputated dog heads pop up in that google search? And why is that where she goes with this discovery, erroneous.
They do finally discover the "Frankenstein lab" where black market body parts are being used to make horrible patched-together monsters. So Scully's random discovery while Googling solved the case! Yeah, doesn't sound too reality based.

Maybe it's not really so bad in the movie, but I don't think I want to spend $10 to find out. I'll probably watch when it comes out on video.

Anyway here's a video (via io9) showing a 1940s-era Russian experiment in keeping a severed dog's head alive. The first part is animated, but then it goes into an actual experiment, so some of you might find it disturbing.

The clip is from a longer film in the Prelinger Archives: Experiments in the Revival of Organisms. Some people have argued that it was actually faked as Communist propaganda. Even if the film itself was staged, the experiments were actually carried out by Sergei Bryukhonenko, who pioneered open heart surgery in the Soviet Union.

Bryukhonenko and his research has made its mark on Russian science fiction. He was the inspiration for "Professor Dowell", a scientist in Alexander Beliaev's 1979 science fiction novel The Head of Professor Dowell, who, like Bryukhonenko, was able to sustain the life of a severed dog's head for several hours. That, in turn, was the basis for the Russian B-movie Professor Dowell's Testament.

There's more about experimental resuscitation and science fiction at WFMU's Beware of the Blog. And, of course Wikipedia has a whole page on head transplants, fact and fiction.

Maybe next time she's looking for medical research information Scully should just skip Google and head to Wikipedia. It's certainly more entertaining than PubMed!

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  1. Anonymous4:37 AM

    It is a nightmare. We should have laws to forbid this kind of things.

  2. While I understand your visceral reaction, research like Bryukhonenko's was crucial for the development of the heart-lung recirculation pumps that make open heart surgery possible. As long as the experimentation is done ethically and the pain and trauma to the test animals is minimized as much as possible, I believe it plays an important role in biomedical research.

  3. Anonymous3:40 PM

    I know that you might be concerned that the character 'Scully' should be aware of the history of stem cell research, but they were not aware that this was the nature of the experiments. They thought the people were being harvested for organs. Scully was triggered by a fax she got for her research.
    It was a good idea for a film although I feel that it could've been extended more at the end. Maybe you are better off watching the DVD because there is probably alot of deleted scenes taken out from the end.

  4. Anonymous7:02 AM

    Maybe Scully found THIS on google:

    Last year, researchers at University College, London, announced plans to inject the spinal cords of paralysed patients with stem cells taken from the human nose.

    These are cells capable of regenerating themselves and adapting to many different purposes within the body and it is hoped they might create a 'bridge' between the disconnected ends of the spinal nerves, enabling paralysed patients to regain full control of their bodies.

    If severed spinal cords can be restored in this way, perhaps head transplants might eventually become a scientific possibility - without leaving the unfortunate 'patient' permanently paralysed. Whether such operations would ever be deemed ethical is another matter - and the psychological and emotional implications simply beggar belief.



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