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Stanford Medicine magazine explores challenges of breaking boundaries in science

Stanford Neurosciences Institute
Michael Waraksa

By Patricia Hanna

f the tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his hideous creation reminds us of anything, perhaps it’s that being human means more than simply having a beating heart and a working brain. The relationship between the obsessed doctor and the unnamed monster depicted in Mary Shelley’s book also reminds us that being human also should mean being humane.

In his introduction to the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazineLloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, discusses how the novel’s desperate and lonely creature, who wants only to be understood, can help illustrate why humanity must help inform science and discovery.

“It is through this nuanced, complex character that we feel compassion and a deep empathy,” Minor said. “At Stanford Medicine, empathy is vitally important to our vision of precision health, which brings together the high tech and the high touch, and recognizes the uniqueness of every individual.”

The magazine’s issue delves into research that pushes boundaries in medicine, but it also looks at the implications of that research on humanity — Frankenstein themes that still matter 200 years after Shelley published her tale.

The ethical and cultural challenges of charting medicine’s “out there” frontiers are evident in several stories in the issue:  

  • Audrey Shafer, MD, notes that “many scientists, doctors and patients balk at any mention of the words Frankenstein and medicine in the same breath.” But they must not shy away from the moral and ethical questions raised by the novel, and by science itself, as we probe what it means to be human, said Shafer, professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine, and director of the Stanford Medicine and the Muse program. The program is highlighting the novel’s themes through a yearlong series of courses, film screenings and other events.
  • Hiromitsu Nakauchi, MD, PhD, professor of genetics, dreams of quickly growing transplantable human organs in large animals, such as sheep or pigs, to save people whose organs are failing. But the research has reignited a national discussion about the potential implications of blending animal and human cells.
  • Neuroscientist Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and his lab team are growing tiny brains balls in petri dishes so they can discover what goes wrong in the brains of people with neurological diseases, including autism, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Because further research could include transplanting the cells into mice, Pasca is “actively engaged” in conversations with other scientists about how to proceed in the quickly advancing field.
  • Researchers believe that the ability of the gene-editing tool CRISPR to quickly remove, delete and repair defective genes could improve the lives of millions of people with inherited disorders. But many fear the consequences if safeguards aren’t established. Those include the possibility of using it to create designer babies, or that ongoing experiments to alter the DNA of disease-spreading insects or genetically enhance crops could have unintended negative impacts.
  • Stanford’s first U.S. adult heart transplant was considered shocking 50 years ago. Though surgeon Norman Shumway, MD, wasn’t the first in the world to transplant a human heart, continuing research by him, his team and his successors led to worldwide advances in the procedure.
  • Science author Mary Roach talks about why she isn’t squeamish about writing about the crevices of our bodies where few authors venture. “You hear a lot about the brain and the heart. People have a sense that these are miraculous, but not so much the nether regions or the inside of the nose, the nostrils, the tongue. The icky parts are just as miraculous, and people tend to overlook them. I’m the plumber,” she said.


The issue also includes an excerpt from a book by physician-astronaut Scott Parazynski, MD, a medical school alum who wrote about the harrowing — and glorious — day he spent suspended outside the International Space Station Discovery to repair a ripped wing on the station’s solar panels; and a storyabout the ideas that engineers, biologists and doctors are exploring to prevent the long-term disabilities suffered by people who’ve had strokes.

The magazine is available online at stanmed.stanford.edu. Print copies are being sent to subscribers. Others can request a copy at (650) 723-6911 or by sending an email to medmag@stanford.edu.