25 years ago, a whimsical science fiction thriller predicted a major medical breakthrough

In 1999, two science fiction films made us question our reality. One was full of passion, groundbreaking special effects, and Keanu Reeves – a destined blockbuster. The other brought body horror, with Willem Dafoe spiraling into madness in a scene-stealing bit, and a really sharp biopunk twist on VR that all led to it being overshadowed and overlooked.

The first is natural The matrix, which grossed over $450 million at the box office. The other is by David Cronenberg existZ, which failed at the box office but, like many Cronenberg films, became a cult classic.

In the middle of existZ, like it The matrix, is a virtual reality that captivates people. But because this is Cronenberg, it ends up being a lot grosser and a lot weirder than its more mainstream cousin. At the heart of it all is a kind of living machine that pulls people into a shared reality. It’s like a console that can be ported, but only accessible to those who have given themselves a port in their neck, allowing connection to the titular eXistenZ, which is basically like a hyper-violent MMORPG.

Although the technology is never given a detailed (sorry) explanation in the film, we know that it is made up of biological parts. And although our reality is far from that of existZthere is some basis for science. Finally, researchers to have lab-grown brain-like cells that have shown that they can communicate with our technology, and have raised some interesting ethical questions along the way. To separate the reality of the petri dishes from Cronenberg’s more sordid fabrications, we spoke to a toxicologist/pharmacologist who works with these strange bioengineered clumps and did some research on advances in lab-grown cells .

Organoids have allowed scientists to cut back on animal research.

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In recent years, advances in stem cells have given medical researchers an important tool to replicate organ tissue, often using adult stem cells, to study drugs, interventions, infections and more without having to harm a living person. Called organoids, they have also allowed scientists to cut back on animal research.

Once the cells are created in a laboratory, they are placed in a growth medium that must be replaced every few days. It provides the organoids with the nutrition they need to stay alive, but the need to replace the medium every few days is disruptive to the organoids.

There are organoids for many organs, but one of the more interesting ones is brain tissue, which creates rudimentary, small brains, says toxicologist Thomas Hartung of Johns Hopkins University. Other way around are currently about the same size as a housefly, about 0.5 millimeters.

“They are as small as snowflakes, but they are all the same size, and for most of our disease models this is sufficient,” says Hartung. But these “snowflakes” have led to breakthroughs in research into Parkinson’s and autism, giving biologists insight into chemical precursors that can lead to both conditions.

Willem Dafoe in existZ.

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Brain organoids also have a stranger side. For example, although they are about as complex as those of a housefly, the organoids have learned to play Pong and to drive a small toy car via a Bluetooth connection. “We are already combining these small brain organoids with small video games in which they learn to control very simple movements,” says Hartung.

But the goal is to go from half a millimeter to a full centimeter, which Hartung says would be about twice the size of a mouse brain. This would allow more electrodes to be placed in the system and provide a way to communicate with the brain, partly through artificial intelligence providing information. This has some researchers thinking, as it could risk making the organoids conscious in some sense.

“We should at least consider the possibility that some self-awareness could occur, but in a very simple form,” says Hartung. “But still, if you train the system, if you give it feedback or information about its environment, it can suddenly realize what’s happening to the system.”

The technology has not yet been scaled to this level, but as a precaution, organoid researchers are keeping ethicists on hand to guide them in their research and ensure that guardrails are in place to prevent ethical boundaries from being crossed.

There is some truth in it existZit is that scientists can hatch an artificial brain-like cell mass in a laboratory, and even make it communicate with computers.

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So no organoids are made for delivery existZ exists, but there is simply some truth to it: we have created a biotechnology that can communicate with real-world gadgets. But its benefits create important opportunities in medical research and reduce the need for laboratory animals with biological similarities to humans, such as monkeys.

“My expectation is that we can learn more about the physiology of learning by having a system that you can manipulate, that you can study without ethical problems, and without the enormous effort of sticking electrodes into the brains of macaques, and that If we study simple cellular mechanisms, we may be able to learn why the brain is such an efficient computer,” says Hartung.

So maybe it doesn’t create a virtual reality realm from bioengineered parts, or interface with some twisted biology. But if there is some truth in it existZ, it is that scientists can hatch an artificial brain-like cell mass in a laboratory, and even make it communicate with computers. By being asked to play a series of video games, the organoids essentially enter a kind of strange virtual reality of their own… but thankfully they are unaware of it.