A great step forward for humanity is ready; humanity isn’t ready for it

Imagine if, instead of testing new beauty products on animals (including human animals), the companies making these products could instead order a swatch of human skin and run its tests on that.

Going a step further, imagine that we could grow a human liver in the lab. We could pump blood soaked with certain pharmaceutical products into it and see how well it handled them.

Same with the kidney, we could even speed up the blood flow to simulate what the continuous taking of a drug over months or years would do. Does it build up, or does it all turn to piss?

Perhaps we could string these organs together, we could make a system from the oesophagus right down to the poop shoot, with all the hormones and communications running between them.

The final stop on this imaginary path is the ability to grow an entire human body in the lab. We could introduce tumours and expose them to chemotherapy and measure the effectiveness and the side effects. We could test the current crop of hypotheses that are still years, or even decades from human trials.

The rate of medical progress would accelerate so far beyond our current pace that 2017 would resemble the stone age.

And the cost of treatment production would drop so dramatically that we could afford to make life better for everyone, not just those in the rich countries.

So, here’s the thing: we have lab-grown skin already. We’ve been testing treatments for skin diseases and also putting lipstick on it for 4 years.

There’s work on the organ front too, and perhaps we’ll have those in a few decades. The work is primarily focused on producing organs for transplants, but it’s conceivable that we’ll also get ‘disposable’ organs which will be a great leap forward for the testing of treatments.

And now you’re expecting me to say that the idea of a disposable human is conceivable, but barely. I might say that it’s at least 100 years away, and beyond that it’s not even worth guessing.

But you’d be wrong.

We have that today, ready to use: a steady supply of disposable human bodies. These bodies, to be specific, take the form of humans who are just about to commit suicide.

And the rate of supply is astounding. If we look at some of the countries that are making good progress with medical treatments, we’ve got 200,000 in China; 40,000 a year in the USA; 30,000 more in Japan; 6,000 in the UK.

That’s a lot of bodies. A lot of potentially useful bodies.

How it would work

The idea is a lot like donating organs. At one point in time this would have been a sacrilegious concept — who could even suggest such a thing! And it’s still not kosher in certain parts of the world that are yet to get it. But in most places today, to take your organs to your grave is seen as a senseless waste, on par with taking your car with you to the underworld.

Let’s ease into this…

Imagine you’ve got nothing to live for. Today is the day you’re going to blow your brains out. But you’re a thoughtful citizen, so you call an ambulance, tell them there’s going to be a body, filled with juicy organs to pick up at your place whenever they’ve got a moment.

You then put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger.

Things could go differently though. A sample conversation:

Operator: No! Don’t kill yourself, that’s terrible, call a suicide prevention line or something!

You: I tried, the line was busy.

Operator: Are you sure I can’t change your mind?

You: Yes, you will not change my mind. The gun is in my hand, and the only reason it’s not in the firing position is because it’s rude to talk with your mouth full.

Operator: Well then, if you’re going to do it anyway, and you’re super-sure that you’re not going to change your mind, would you mind waiting for a little while until we can get an ambulance there? That will increase the chance that we can use your organs.

You: Seems reasonable.

Operator: Cool, we’ll knock on the door, if you could unlock it for us then shoot yourself in the head, we’ll take care of the rest.

You: Sounds great.

Operator: Wonderful, thank you for your donation. Is there anything else we can help you with today?

You: No, um, that was everything.

Operator: Ok, bye.

You: Bye.

Little Timmy at the hospital gets a replacement kidney, you get that eternal peace you were craving, it’s a win-win.

This is generally possible today with maybe a few technical and legal difficulties, for example if your country requires a post-mortem for suicides. But nothing worth getting hung up on.

Let’s a go a step further:

Operator: If you’re super-sure we can’t change you mind, perhaps you’d like to pop into the hospital and we can do the dirty work for you? Do you know how long it takes to clean a brain off the ceiling. Seriously, it’s a nightmare.

You: You promise you’re not going to pull a swifty on me? If I come in there, you’re really going to kill me? I don’t want some big speech about how suicide is bad.

Operator: I swear on Timmy’s toes. We’ll knock you out with an anaesthetic, you’ll never feel a thing. An anaesthetic, that’s hard to say! An anaesthetic.

You: Alright, sounds good, I’ll be in in a jiffy. In in.

This is all shaping up quite neatly. No one needs to pick your grey matter out from between the couch cushions, and Timmy gets to live. They knock you out but keep you alive for a bit while they take your organs out and stick them into the recipient lying next to you.

Then when they’re done they can just flick the switch on your heart before closing you up.

What a great process.

But maybe the next person on the waiting list for a heart is away on holidays, she won’t be back for two weeks. Since they’ve got you there, knocked out, maybe they can get a bit cheeky and induce a coma. Keep your heart warm till Sharon gets back from the Maldives.

But oh no, what’s this? Sharon’s plane crashed and she’s dead now? So your body is just lying there in a coma with nowhere to go. The hospital pinky swore that they’d do away with you, so they can’t very well wake you up now. Can you imagine how mad you’d get?

“You promised!”

Those responsible are discussing this sticky sitch in the hospital cafeteria as they lump potato mash onto their plates. A cardiologist in line next to them overhears this. Says he has a quirky idea for fixing a broken heart, but it’s super risky and he can’t get approval to practice on humans.

Of course, your former body guardians explain to the cardiologist that it would be unethical for them to not let him give it a red hot go.

The cardiologist takes ownership of your living carcass, but messes up big time and makes a right sight of your body.

And the next one.

And the one after that.

But on the 7th body he gets it right. A new technique is born and a third of the people on the heart transplant list can be fixed up and sent on their way.

This is wonderful, but this ad hoc handling of bodies is terribly inefficient and not going to scale well.

So, I propose an online service where a person can register as someone who no longer wishes to live. They would sign up, enter in a few details about themselves, their medical condition, etc, and the date that they would like to die.

On the other side of the marketplace, pharmaceutical companies, governments, teaching hospitals, universities, and the generally curious can register to receive these bodies.

The receivers will work out a deal with the providers. For example, the body-provider might stipulate that they want to be put into a coma, with the promise of never waking up, and have no other requirements. If the receiver of the body wants to carry out experiments for several years, that’s their choice, as long as the person never wakes up.

Maybe the donor stipulates that they want to die under anaesthetic and not be put in a coma — perhaps worried that they’d have months of bad dreams. So the receiver of the body knocks them out, allows some students have a bit of a play, then ends the donor’s life.

It’s win-win-win. The donor doesn’t need to worry about the method of suicide (it’s surprisingly difficult — I’m amazed so many people get it right), the hospital gets to produce some top-rate surgeons, and the next person who needs a heart transplant gets a surgeon with more experience because they’ve already had a few dozen practice runs with blood squirting everywhere.

Of course no money can change hands, otherwise we could get into a situation where people took their own lives to provide for their family and that’s no good.

Surgery is just a drop in the pond though. If a drug company was able to take someone with cancer, with 6 months to live, whack them in a coma and try out some of their cutting edge stuff, it would be revolutionary. Multiply this by thousands of body donors and we’ll be living in a different world in no time.

The current process is barbaric by comparison. We slowly carry out clinical trials on living, feeling people — wondering if they’re on the placebo or not — what torture! Trials run on for years, progress drags and drags, all because you’re trying to find a way to kill something within a living body in a way that doesn’t allow you to make a mistake. If these drug companies aren’t free to try things that will fail, progress will forever be slow.

Imagine learning to juggle knowing that if you dropped a single ball you’d be stripped of your juggling licence. You’d have no flair whatsoever. And juggling without pizzazz is just throwing things in the air.

The fastest road to learning is through hard mistakes. There are bodies waiting to be used for this, but hundreds of thousands are year are just thrown in a bin.

What a waste.

Seriously, put aside the part of you that sees this as outrageous. Allow yourself 60 seconds of guilt-free imagining. What could we, as a species, achieve, if this were allowed to happen. What world could we be living in by 2020? 2030?

I don’t think any educated person could suggest that if this was allowed, the world wouldn’t be a much better place for it.

Yet any reasonably intelligent person will know that this is never going to happen.

Isn’t that interesting?

I only exist while you're reading my posts.