The Frankenstein Chronicles

If you guys are looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween, check out The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix.

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Sean Bean stars as John Marlott, a London investigator tracking down the origin of a disturbing creation: a corpse that is actually an amalgamation of multiple children.  Does it have something to do with the Anatomy Act that the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, is trying to pass?  Or with Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and theories of galvanism?  The show has wonderful atmosphere and suspense.  I really liked the twists in the first season, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the second season, which is now available.

The science of the show is pretty hand-wavey, but that’s forgivable given the show’s strengths.  It does incorporate several real historical figures and events, including Peel, Shelley, and William Blake.  It is set about ten years after the publication of Frankenstein, which was a great choice because not only can we see the impact of the novel on society, but it also gives the show a more steampunk vibes, being closer to the Victorian era than the Regency.

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The show is clearly inspired by Frankenstein itself, and I think this interpretation is preferable to another straight adaptation of the novel.  It gives a great perspective on the monster!  When Marlott reads the novel in the show, it inspired me to finally read the classic story, which is very different than the popular conception of it.

Here are some Frankenstein Facts:

  1. This year is the 200th anniversary of its publication.
  2. Mary Shelley was only 18 when she conceived of the idea for the novel, after a suggestion by the poet Byron that he, Mary, and her future husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley each write a ghost story as a kind of party game.
  3. It is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters and journal entries.
  4. Its subtitle is “The Modern Prometheus,” after the Titan that helped create man, then gave them fire in defiance of Zeus (only to be sentenced to an eternity of solitary torment).
  5. It was ranked #43 on the Great American Read list.
  6. Popular conception of the story comes from the Universal Pictures 1930s series of movies starring Boris Karloff as the monster, as well as the later Hammer Films series of movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
  7. It is considered one of the progenitors of the science fiction genre.

As a novel, I found Frankenstein mildly underwhelming.  I’m not sold on the framing narrative involving an Arctic explorer writing letters home to his sister, and the prose lacks the wit of my Regency favorite Jane Austen.  However, as a forerunner to modern sci-fi, its importance cannot be overstated.  At its heart, science fiction is not about spaceships and plagues, but about society.  Frankenstein deals with scientific inquiry, or more specifically how far it should go.  Just because we are capable of doing something, should it be done?  Is it ever okay to “play God?”

In this way, the story is similar to another sci-fi favorite, Jurassic Park (#52 on the GAR list).  Holly at Nut Free Nerd has a great comparison of the two stories as part of her Classic Couples series.

 

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What are you reading and watching for Halloween?

 

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Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and informed consent

February in the US is Black History Month.  In my mind, there are kind of two parts to this.  The first is celebrating the many accomplishments of African-Americans, from MLK Jr. and Harriet Tubman to these awesome women in STEM.  I also loved these photos floating around on Facebook:

The second part is remembering the many injustices and struggles that African-Americans have undergone during our country’s history.  In the face of these wrongs, we as a culture can:

  • bring them to light
  • try to right the wrongs as much as possible
  • take steps to make sure they don’t happen again in the future

That brings me to the story of Henrietta Lacks, told so compellingly in the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (which I wrote about briefly here).

In 1951, Lacks presented at Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer; as a poor, African-American woman and mother of five, in that time and place her medical treatment options were limited, and she soon succumbed to the disease.  During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, samples of her tumor cells were removed without her knowledge or permission, which was a common practice at the time.

These cells were cultured in vitro (basically, grown in dishes in a special nutrient broth) in the lab of Dr. George Gey.  The researchers soon discovered that, unlike previous attempts to culture human cells, Lacks’ cells did not die off after dividing a few times.  They kept growing and dividing; they were the first human immortal cell line and were subsequently named HeLa cells.

HeLa cells grew so well, in fact, that they began contaminating other cell lines.  Researchers began looking into the genome (genetic data) of Lacks’ cells and tracked down her family, who were stunned to learn that a piece of their mother, who passed away soon after giving her tumor sample in 1951, was somehow still alive in scientific labs all over the world.

Can you imagine what that revelation must have been like for the Lacks family?  Especially since their inadequate public science education barely prepared them to understand concepts like “cells” and “culture” and “genome.”

Still, the Lacks family is justly proud of Henrietta’s contribution to science.  HeLa cells have been used in a huge number of important experiments, including Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine.

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The cover features a famous picture of Henrietta Lacks.  Notice the subtle bolding of “He La”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as numerous journalistic articles (and blog posts), have done a great deal to bring the story of Henrietta and HeLa cells to light.  But this fame is a double-edged sword: the privacy of the Lacks family has been irrevocably compromised.  Their family history has been thrust into the national spotlight, and, since the DNA of HeLa cells has now been sequenced, even pieces of their genetic code have been analyzed.

The Lacks family does now have some say in how HeLa cells can be used.  In 2013, the family reached an agreement with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to give family members an advisory role regarding which researchers can access the HeLa genetic data.  (These researchers must also acknowledge the contribution of Henrietta and the Lacks family in their publications.)  

But they have never seen, and likely never will see, any of the money that derives from the multitude of discoveries and nearly 11,000 patents relating to HeLa cells.  Though financial compensation has never been their goal, and from a practical standpoint it would be nigh impossible at this point, it hardly seems fair that others will continue to profit from use of their ancestor’s cells while they do not.  

Clearly the only way to really fix this situation involves a time machine.  (Sadly, all the sci-fi stories I read tell me that time travel causes more problems than it solves.)  

But seriously, if the Lacks family is now satisfied, let’s look forward: how can we prevent a case like Henrietta Lacks’ in the future?

Informed consent has been a standard in medical ethics for decades now.  Researchers must ask permission from their subjects before doing any human research.  (At least, they do if they want federal funding and to be published in reputable journals.)  The federal government is currently revising these regulations, referred to as the Common Rule.  

Rebecca Skloot and others favor the inclusion of a requirement for “broad consent,” so that even anonymous, “non-identifiable” samples require some general consent before experimental use.  (To be fair, samples today are coded so much better than simply using patients’ initials like “HeLa.”  But it is still technically possible to re-identify some samples through genetics, etc.)

Critics argue that this will just result in more paperwork, bogging down science while throwing another paper at patients to be signed without real understanding.  I am a practical person, but I refuse to build science, no matter how great, on the backs of the uneducated and disenfranchised.  While another case like Henrietta Lacks’ is unlikely, public education about tissue research is critical to our ability to continue to do great science while respecting human dignity.

Henrietta Lacks is still changing the face of science today in many ways, whether it’s regarding cancer treatment or medical ethics.  I encourage you to read more at the links throughout this post, and I encourage respectful discussion in the comments.