Some of us may have a story or two to tell at parties, but the majority of us can’t claim anything close to Hiro Nakauchi’s peculiar bragging rights. A few short years ago the researcher successfully grew a rat’s pancreas in a mouse and a mouse’s pancreas in a rat, all in the name of science. And now he’s back, splicing together human DNA and pigs’ in the hope of furthering the field of human medicine.
Which is pretty cool. Though Elon Musk may be content to take us to Mars, Nakauchi has more immediate goals: to help humans effectively source transplantable organs. It’s refreshing, in an age of attention-grabbing uses for technology—smart homes, driverless cars, Martian colonies—to see a form of innovation which strives to meet an immediate human need. After all, while the frontiersmanship of space exploration is a vital contribution to the future of the species, tech doesn’t just allow for hyper-convenience and sci-fi fantasies; we should also bear in mind that often there are immediate needs to meet that we simply aren’t doing, or able to do—for financial, practical, technological or other reasons.
We touched on a similar theme in a recent blog about shortages of industrial-grade sand, but honestly, it bears repeating: progress is often a negotiation between what we’re physically able to achieve and what we believe we can achieve, which is why innovation is valuable. Anything that changes the framework of how we conceptualise problems and solutions opens fresh terrains for research and new thinking, whether the catalyst is an innovative breakthrough or discovery, an audacious experiment, or simply the introduction of an outlandish new idea to the marketplace.
Nakauchi’s groundbreaking work, if successful, could set off a flurry of activity and investment in medical science. Organ shortage is a problem we’ve already been trying to solve for a long time using technology, and we’re getting closer all the time—in 2016, Erik Gatenholm conceived Cellink, the world’s first standardised bio-ink for the 3D-printing of human tissue, putting us that little bit closer to the reality of solving the organ-shortage crisis for good. But though animal research has been a going concern for much longer—we all remember the ear-rat and the Huntingdon Life Sciences controversies of the nineties—if Nakauchi’s work does indeed prove successful, it will open up a whole new world of possibility.
And even if it doesn’t, it could still open up new worlds of thinking. It isn’t just the practical capabilities of medical science that undergo a perceptual shift when a breakthrough is in our sights—the way we think and talk about the entire field will shift as well, just as science fiction has influenced how we discuss new technologies and products like Alexa (Hal-9000) or artificial intelligence (Skynet.)
The way we talk, the way we conceptualise, the way we plan—these are important questions as we move into the future. And for us, as a company that believes that a shift in thinking is as important—if not more—than a practical one, this is an exciting prospect. Opening new mental avenues for exploration is one of the most fruitful things a company can do, as territories that remained dark and off-limits even a few short years ago suddenly show signs of being navigable. Here’s hoping that a successful gene-splice could see the beginning of the long exploratory journey to sustainable organ donation—and beyond.
And, even if it doesn’t, Nakauchi can still tell people at parties that he almost spliced a human’s DNA with a pig’s. How many of us can say we even came close?