Creating a modern monster
When Mary Shelley published her story of Victor Frankenstein and his misshapen monster in 1818, she provided little detail about how exactly
the doctor built his creation except that “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of [his] materials” and that he infused “a spark of
being in the lifeless thing.” But what if Shelley had written her book today? What technologies might give rise to her iconic creature?
Text by David Shultz; Graphic by Adolfo Arranz
The kidney, first transplanted in 1950, remains the
most commonly transplanted organ today, followed
by the liver, heart, lung, pancreas, and intestine.
A 2018 Frankenstein could also transplant tissues
such as the skin, nerves, cornea, cartilage, and
bones. More cutting-edge are face transplants,
performed 37 times between 2005 and 2015, and
penis transplants, first successfully done in 2014.
The first baby to develop in a transplanted womb
was born in Sweden in 2014.
What’s next: Two surgeons say they want to
perform human head transplants, perhaps better
called “whole body” transplants, though most
scientists say reconnecting all the nerves within the
spinal cord will remain science fiction for a long time.
Skin, urethras, bladders, blood vessels,
vaginas, and muscle can all be produced
by taking a patient’s own cells and growing
them on a biodegradable scaffold in the lab.
The technique works best for flat, hollow,
and tubular organs.
What’s next: Scientists are using 3D
printing and other techniques in efforts to
grow more complex structures such as
hearts, livers, kidneys, penises, and wombs.
Robotic “exoskeletons,” controlled with a remote, are
helping paraplegics regain control over their legs.
Missing limbs can be replaced by prosthetics, the most
advanced of which can directly read brain commands
through electrodes placed on the skull. But even the best
prosthetics can’t simulate the unconscious adjustments
that smooth out normal gestures. They still move more like
Frankenstein’s monster than Luke Skywalker.
What’s next: Artificial limbs could learn to make some
decisions on their own, using cameras and algorithms,
to allow for smoother movements; strength and speed
could be increased to superhuman levels.
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Starting from scratch
Why build a human from spare parts if you
can make one to order from an embryo?
Scientists agree it is already feasible—albeit
wrong—to clone a human. A 21st century
Shelley might call on gene editing to eliminate
diseases and endow the creature with specific
qualities, including size, strength, and eye or
What’s next: Tweaking humans will get
easier as scientists further unravel how our
genes influence physical traits. One day,
the creature could be grown in an artificial
womb. Scientists warn that countless things
could go wrong along the way, and you might
end up with something monstrous—just as
Machines could substitute for organs in
a modern version of the creature. Dialysis
machines function as external kidneys;
pacemakers and cochlear implants work
inside the body for years. Artificial hearts, in
use since the 1980s, still need external
power sources and are only used as a “bridge”
until a donor heart becomes available.
What’s next: On the horizon may be fully
artificial pancreases, eyes, and lungs. Organs
such as the heart and the lungs could be built
to outperform natural ones, extending the
limits of human performance.