Who Needs Genitronics?

By Jon Sung | Stardate 45587.3 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

While helping Geordi track down a radiation leak in cargo bay three of the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D, Lieutenant Worf is struck down by a falling container that seems to weigh at least as much as he does. He awakens in sickbay, where Dr. Crusher informs him as gently as possible that his spinal cord has been severely damaged, rendering him paralyzed from the waist down. This news doesn’t sit very well with Worf’s Klingon beliefs, and he starts making preparations to end his life, much to the dismay of his friends and young son Alexander.

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Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher has summoned help in the form of neurospecialist Dr. Toby Russell, who arrives bearing gifts. More precisely, she’s brought an experimental treatment involving a prototype device she calls a genitronic replicator, which should theoretically be able to read the DNA of Worf’s mangled spinal cord and create a new one. It sounds miraculous, but it’s never been tested on a living being; the success rate in holographic simulations is only 37%, which doesn’t impress an already skeptical Beverly. Her enthusiasm dips even further when Dr. Russell reveals what could charitably be called a cavalier attitude toward using medical patients as experimental test subjects. Worf, however, seems pretty set on dying if he can’t have his legs back, so the genitronic procedure goes forward. It’s not without its complications: Worf does in fact die on the operating table, but the multiple redundancies of Klingon biology save him, restarting his body from a synaptic backup.

“Ethics” is one of those episodes that brings up a lot of incidental questions. What else did K’Ehleyr tell Alexander about Klingon notions of honor? What was it that made Worf decide to ask Deanna to raise his child should he not survive the procedure? Does literally every Klingon organ or system have some kind of backup failsafe? But let’s talk about that genitronic replicator: could it ever become reality? After all, even in the 24th century, it’s bit of a stretch. It turns out that the answer is astonishing: we’re already part of the way there. Scientists at the University of Dresden reported in November that they were able to grow an intact mouse spinal cord from stem cells in a petri dish.

This is just an initial step, of course. First of all, mouse spinal cords are smaller and less complex than human ones, so they might just be easier to grow. Also, no one knows how hard it would be to connect a lab-grown spinal cord to an existing brain, or whether it would transmit the right neural impulses correctly — it could be like trying to jam a 15-pin VGA cable into an HDMI port.

But should it prove viable, this approach has some amazing upsides. As long as the right nutrients are present, the stem cells seem not only to grow of their own accord, they even arrange themselves into what looks like a functional spinal cord without a lot of outside management. Put 2 + 2 together, and you could end up with a procedure that takes cells from a paralyzed patient, turns them into stem cells, and grows a replacement spinal cord that has a much lower chance of rejection than a standard transplant.

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This is one of those rare cases where something we’re working on right now might actually be better than the Star Trek version: Dr. Russell’s genitronic replicator worked by laboriously reading the DNA of the organ it was attempting to copy, then essentially 3D printing a new version from raw materials. While it was an interesting and bold idea, it was also clunky and prone to technical failure — at one point during Worf’s procedure, the scanning mechanism broke down and the doctors had to complete the scan by hand. The Dresden researchers’ approach might take longer but is less error-prone, as it simply involves setting up some stem cells and essentially getting out of their way while they grow themselves into a new spinal cord in a process perfected by nature over eons.

So we might actually be a little ahead of the 24th-century curve on that one, and bonus: we didn’t have to deal with a sketchy, corner-cutting, patient-killing doctor!

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