Custom Organs and Co-Creation

I write about these stories from time to time, and with each new headline the ball seems to be a little further down the field. I was particularly taken with a line in this article about Andemariam Beyene, who received a new windpipe to replace one ravaged by cancer. The windpipe was “grown” on a plastic scaffolding using Beyene’s own cells.

[A]n exact copy of his windpipe was made from a porous, fibrous plastic, which was then seeded with stem cells harvested from his bone marrow. After just a day and a half in a bioreactor — a kind of incubator in which the windpipe was spun, rotisserie-style, in a nutrient solution — the implant was stitched into Mr. Beyene, replacing his cancerous windpipe.

Beyene is now breathing normally and tumor-free. We’ve seen things like this before with bladders, and Beyene’s windpipe surgery, which was done last summer, was a success. More complex structures, such as kidneys, livers, and blood vessels, are the next stage.

This quote from his doctor, Paolo Macchiarini, is what really struck me: “The human body is so beautiful, I’m convinced we must use it in the most proper way.

We are called to cooperate with creation: not attempt to rule it or warp it. Even when theology is removed from the equation, people benefit from a Catholic understanding of the material world. Our bodies are miracles of creation, as is our reason. Functioning together, with  reason finding ways to use creation in cooperation with God’s plan, we can work wonders. Dr. Macchiarini sees human bodies ravaged by cancer, so he knows better than most that the body isn’t always “beautiful.” But he sees past that to its potential to provide remarkable solutions to serious problems.

Finding God in the material stuff of life is the very heart of a sacramental understanding of the world. As St. Josemaria Escriva wrote:

God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, material and secular activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.

…[E]ither we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or we shall never find him. That is why I tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the apparently trivial events of life their noble, original meaning. It needs to place them at the service of the Kingdom of God; it needs to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus.

When brilliant minds use their God-given gifts to understand and cooperate with creation, they become co-creators. Grace builds on nature. God works through human talents, properly ordered, making something greater in the world. Dr. Macchiarini was the hands of Christ in the world, in a profound and striking way.

We’re not all called to summon new organs from the very building blocks of human life, but we take part in this act of co-creation every time we allow grace to work through our natural gifts to manifest Christ in the world. We are His hands. If we just trust Him and cooperate with Him, we can work miracles.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    We’re called upon to be stewards of the Earth, perhaps this includes being stewards of our bodies (which are of and on the Earth). Just listened to a great episode of Radio Lab called “Guts.” The basic question it asked is, “Just how miraculous is it that the stomach can take material from outside of us, and then transform it into US?” So finding God in the material stuff of life is the big quest, because the bridge between God and the material world (the only one we have access to) is only bridged by God placing himself into the material world either through His Son, or through influencing our behaviors.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    That’s core sacramental theology (for Catholics, at least): God elevated matter in the incarnation, and thus we may now “meet” God through matter, as in transubstantiation. This sacramental worldview is what the Reformation gave up.

    Interesting footnote to the gut thing: Mark 7:18-19: “”Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) “

  • Brian Green

    Wow, that is some amazing use of science and technology right there. The picture is half the story! Seeing a perfectly good trachea just laying there, waiting for use. Up until this surgery, pieces like that only came out, they never went in!

    “We are called to cooperate with creation: not attempt to rule it or warp it. Even when theology is removed from the equation, people benefit from a Catholic understanding of the material world.”

    This reminds of the distinction Aristotle (and the Scholastics) made between arts of cultivation and construction. Living things must be cultivated towards the fulfillment of their natures, while constructed things are made into what they would never produce by their own nature. Does this surgery cultivate the human, by constructing a part for us? I’m not actually sure – in an adult those cells would not have formed that shape without the scaffold, but they would have done so in another stage of development as in a fetus or child. Technology provides interesting tests to stretch our own traditional understandings. Catholicism is well prepared to meet these new ideas – I think more well-prepared than any other worldview – but the problems presented (not in this case, but perhaps when they start doing this to brains?) are still very strange and will require some thought! In any case. what a great new technology.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Excellent and extremely relevant point on cultivation and construction. I think the answer is in nature. It’s like the vine that is trained. I believe we need to feel our way gradually along these new borders of morality and technology, because it’s not always clear, and the slaves of progress don’t see relevance in moral arguments. I think using the body to heal the body is a no-brainer. I think using the body to grow an entirely new body is less of a no brainer. As you say: cultivation versus construction.

  • Linebyline

    This may be the most wonderful thing I’ve read all day.

    And also the creepiest picture.