7 pieces of science fiction we're making science fact
Films like Face/Off, Terminator 2 and Demolition Man might sound far-fetched, but thanks to research we’re funding, they aren’t as far from reality as you’d think, as Lauren Tedaldi and Sarah Kidner discover.
1. An end to transplant rejection
Science fiction: In the 1997 film Face/Off, FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) undergoes a face transplant to swap identities with supercriminal Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage). Seeing the criminal’s face in the mirror repulses him.
BHF-funded fact: Organ rejection is a common and potentially fatal complication of donor transplants. Dr Wilson Wong is studying the immune system to find out why donor hearts may be rejected.
2. Using genetics to predict the risk of cardiovascular disease
Science fiction: Gattaca tells the story of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), born with a genetic heart condition and therefore relegated to a genetic underclass. To move ahead, he assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a genetically perfect man who, due to a car accident, is paraplegic.
BHF-funded fact: Genetics holds great potential for predicting those most at risk of cardiovascular disease. We’ve helped create a successful genetic testing service for familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), a genetic condition that causes very high cholesterol levels.
Genetics is also enhancing our understanding of the debilitating heart and lung condition Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension.
3. Reaching adulthood with a congenital heart condition
Science fiction: Welcome to a world where time is the ultimate currency. In the 2011 film In Time, everybody stops aging when they reach 25, but they are genetically engineered to live only one more year, unless they can buy their way out of it. The rich ‘earn’ decades at a time, while the rest beg, borrow or steal enough hours to make it through the day.
BHF-funded fact: Eight out of 10 babies born with a congenital heart condition now reach adulthood largely thanks to research we helped fund. Former BHF professors Robert Anderson and Sir Magdi Yacoub have both been influential in the field of congenital heart research.
4. Using cutting-edge imaging techniques
Science fiction: Elysium presents a future where the wealthy have escaped an over-populated earth and relocated to a space colony where special body scanners can detect and treat all health threats.
BHF-funded fact: We’ve contributed over £1.8m to help fund the Centre for Translational Cardiovascular Imaging at the University of Leeds. In Edinburgh, Dr Marc Dweck has developed a test that may identify patients at high risk of heart attack using an imaging technology called PET/CT.
Cambridge-based BHF Professor Martin Bennett and his colleagues have pioneered an imaging technique called virtual histology intravascular ultrasound (VH-IVUS), which looks at the specific components of plaques. Eventually VH-IVUS may identify not just the presence of disease, but specific plaques at higher risk of rupture. Treating these patients with medications might then prevent heart attacks.
5. Printing body parts
Science fiction: In the 23rd century, the future of mankind depends on The Fifth Element. In the 1997 film of the same name, the Fifth Element is a human form who only comes to Earth every 5,000 years to protect the human race and this time, the spacecraft bringing her back to Earth is destroyed. A team of scientists uses DNA remains to rebuild her. She is recreated using a machine that seems to ‘print’ a three-dimensional person.
BHF-funded fact: We’re not suggesting that we can ‘print’ a person or a new heart (yet) but the use of 3D printers is already making great leaps forward in planning surgery. Using complex and detailed MRID imaging, scientist Dr Tarique Hussain and his team at King’s College London are able to create exact replicas of a patient’s heart. These models can be used to work out where a hole lies in a child’s heart, allowing surgeons to precisely plan what repairs to make and where before the operation.
6. Self-healing bodies
Science fiction: In the 1991 film Terminator 2, man and intelligent machines are on a trajectory to war. A nearly indestructible robot, made from a self-healing liquid metal, is sent back in time to kill the future leader of the human resistance. If only our bodies could heal in a similar way…
BHF-funded fact: Thanks to research carried out by Dr Nicola Smart at the University of Oxford, self-repair could one day be a reality. Dr Smart’s ground-breaking research has already shown that a chemical can be used to make cells from the outer layer of the heart flood towards the site of damage and make new muscle and blood vessels so repairing the damage. This isn’t currently a very efficient process but her research team hope to be able to harness this regenerative power to cure heart failure in the future. The Oxford and Cambridge Centres of Regenerative Medicine is a £2.5 million pound project that is dedicated to finding ways to encourage the heart to repair itself.
7. Frozen in time
Science fiction: The 1993 film Demolition Man sees policeman John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) frozen into CryoPrison with crime lord Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). After 22 years, Phoenix is released in a Utopian society that can’t deal with violence. Spartan is defrosted to save the day.
BHF-funded fact: While we’re not deep-freezing heroes, scientists at one of our three BHF Centres of Regenerative Medicine are investigating whether stem cells derived from defrosted blood cells can grow heart muscle that could be grafted on to a damaged heart. Dr Amer Rana and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge are developing a way to generate stem cells from defrosted blood cells. Researchers can freeze and store the blood cells (at -196 deg C) for longer than 50 years, then turn them into stem cells when they need them.
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