Science: New Limbs Will Grow New Laws


Cherie Olsen and Lisa Biggs, an assistant professor and her undergraduate student at Miami University of Ohio, believe that salamander nerves might hold the key to understanding how limbs could be regenerated in other animals, including humans. According to a recent newspaper report, the duo have gained some insight into how microscopic applications of myelin from salamander ganglia can block the formation of scar tissue at the point of amputation in some creatures, thus allowing their cells to continue regeneration.

Stories like this about brilliant researchers and their protégés should elate me. But they don't anymore.

I used to attribute this to jealousy. I was a psychology major, so professorial research was strictly confined to making albino rats perform unnatural acts and extrapolating the results to college sophomores. My assistantships involved fetching coffee, alphabetizing answer sheets, and cleaning cages.

But I've decided jealousy alone can't explain my melancholia in spite of the good news that amputees might someday be able to regrow lost limbs. Instead, I think my vague feelings of dread are engendered by something much more insidious: the knowledge that Olsen and Biggs's explorations will likely be encumbered at each and every juncture by every manner and form of officialdom.

When I first came upon this report, my mind raced with questions like: Would regenerated retia be able to transmit neurologic schema to new muscles? If not, does that mean learning occurs in regions of the central nervous system other than the brain? And if myelin retards specific cell growth, would it be a factor to investigate in cancer research?

But these soon gave way to questions like: How soon will it be before Jeremy Rifkin interferes with this? What's Sidney Wolfe going to do when he finds out? Ralph Nader? The pope?

Let's face it. It won't be too long before these misanthropes trot out their contentious arguments, condemning the research, all the while conjuring up horrifying scenarios of mutating appendages. Their predictions will provide high drama for television commentators, the latter whose somber demeanors and resonant voices will be mistaken for erudition that circumscribes the sum of human knowledge and endeavor.

So, since we can expect to soon hear serious commentary about "the threat of potential dangers" and other redundancies related to Olsen and Biggs's investigations, I'd like to tender my predictions about some of the questions soon to be debated in the media, if only to showcase my prognosticatory prowess.

First, pundits will equate such research with "Star Wars" and scoff that it's hopelessly quixotic. In effect they'll say, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." This is one of the few English phrases not directly translatable into Japanese.

Next, someone will complain that expensive regenerative therapy will drive up health care costs. Regeneration will be available only for the rich and at the expense of the poor. Therefore, better such research moneys get earmarked for prevention—as in "public safety and health campaigns in underprivileged neighborhoods."

Then, at least one person will cite concerns that regenerated cells might be hyperplastic, having a propensity to over multiply. So new limbs might be more prone to future cancer and possibly require amputation 20 years hence. Ergo, nobody should be allowed to regrow a severed limb because he just might later face the tragedy of losing it.

At some point, Pope John Paul will condemn any attempts to regenerate lost limbs as being against God's will. This is no surprise, considering God's initial reservations about anesthesia and his current consternation about in vitro fertilization. American Catholic amputees will organize and will ultimately get censured by Rome.

Last, the International Association of Chiefs of Police will express concern that people's regenerating anatomical parts could grow uncontrollable. Hordes of errant corpora might escape careless mastectomy patients and terrorize the countryside à la Woody Allen. Thus, limb regeneration is inimical to the public good.

Meanwhile, Olsen and Biggs quit academia, abandon biological research, procure jobs in industry, and earn a fortune by inventing a new wax for automobile vinyl tops.

Stephen G. Barone is a children's psychologist and free-lance writer.