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Medicine: Men in Black

10 minute read

(See front cover) A secluded labyrinth of black, dustless, germless laboratories zigzags across the top floor of the main building of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in Manhattan. Black are the floors, black the furniture, dark grey the windowless walls, shadowless the bleak illumination that comes through the skylights. Entrance to this aseptic, dustless, reflectionless hideaway is by a spiral staircase from an anteroom on the floor below. Only scientists particularly interested in fractioning life to its lowest common denominators may mount that spiral. And all must wash their hands and faces, put on gowns and hoods of black cloth—all except the master of this pure and dark domain, master of its purified and black-clad servants. He, the most famed member of the Rockefeller Institute, Dr. Alexis Carrel, distinguishes himself from the others with a little white headpiece that looks like the hat of a U. S. bluejacket.

This week, Dr. Carrel was in royal good humor. Just off the presses were two books—Methods of Tissue Culture by Raymond C. Parker-and Culture of Organs by Alexis Carrel and Charles A. Lindberghf—which formally presented to medicine the sum of Nobel Laureate Carrel’s 40 years in science. More than any other man, Scientist Carrel has made it possible to study tissue and organs outside of their organisms, but alive. Just as Audubon’s first scientific observations of living birds immeasurably advanced ornithology beyond the study of lifeless stuffed specimens, this new technique in physiology leaves classical anatomy and dissection far behind.

The largest immediate benefit of the twin volumes (Dr. Carrel wrote the introduction to Assistant Parker’s work) will be to make known the methods of Dr. Carrel’s surgery and Aviator Lindbergh’s perfusion pump to a far larger body of scientists than it would be practical to instruct in the Rockefeller Institute’s Stygian laboratories. Incidentally, the books should still a number of wild rumors of occult doings at the Institute which the penny press has spread through the lay world. Such rumors are typified by the recent announcement in English newspapers that Charles Lindbergh was preparing to have his heart removed and replaced by an indestructible one from grateful Dr. Carrel’s stock. In point of fact, however, the Carrel-Lindbergh-Parker books boldly point to a medical future only slightly less fabulous.

Tissue Culture-Alexis Carrel was not the first man to experiment on disembodied tissues and the effects of diverse fluids on those tissues. Yale’s Biologist Ross Granville Harrison, a scientist as introverted as Scientist Carrel is extroverted, as tall and spare as Carrel is short and stocky, as pallid as Carrel is pink, originated the method. Just 30 years ago Dr. Harrison placed a piece of embryo frog’s nerve tissue in a drop of frog lymph. The nerve grew. While others elaborated the method, grew bits of eyes, ears, limbs, and bones in glass flasks. Dr. Harrison, retiring this month as chairman of Yale’s zoology department, stayed with embryos, strove to find out what made certain cells in a subdividing ovum become eyes and nothing but eyes, certain others legs and nothing but legs. His good friend. Professor Hans Spemann of the University of Freiburg worked on the same problems. They exchanged information and students. Dr. Spemann got a Nobel Prize in 1935, which many a scientist thought should have been given jointly to Dr. Harrison.

On Jan. 17, 1912, four years after Dr. Harrison’s experiment. Dr. Carrel placed a fleck of tissue from the heart of an unhatched chick in a glass flask with some nutritious pink fluid.*In 48 hours the fleck had doubled in size and sprouted fluffy grey filaments which made it look like a tiny, quarter-inch dandelion gone to seed. Two days later the growth was four times its original size; two days later eight times. Dr. Carrel began to trim it. Today, 26 years later, cuttings from successive outgrowths of that first piece of embryonic heart grow in Dr. Carrel’s black laboratories.

The lack of an aseptic pump which would perfuse whole organs, keep them alive outside the parent body, served to restrict Dr. Carrel to the study of tissue alone. Tissue did not require circulating blood, could be cultivated merely in a fluid bath. In an immense series of experiments covering the next 18 years, he observed the physiology and morphology of all types of body cells. In his foreword to Dr. Parker’s book, he sums up the work of these years: “The study of the influence of different media on tissues living in vitro has led to the discovery of substances that stimulate cell proliferation, of other substances that maintain the life of the tissues without increasing their volume, and of still others that retard growth. . . . The observation of the effects of these various media on the different cell types is leading to new hypotheses concerning the mechanisms of fundamental processes, such as growth, regeneration and senility.”

And, even more practically, Dr. Carrel attributes to his long work in tissue culture a demonstration “that viruses of malignant tumors are either present almost everywhere in normal tissue or generated spontaneously by normal tissues under the influence of certain chemicals.” To Dr. Carrel, the findings presage the solution of mankind’s cancer problem.

By 1929 Dr. Carrel had reached the point at which his work was being seriously retarded for lack of a germ-proof pump. A German flier and aeronautical engineer, Heinz Rosenberger, whom he had imported from Berlin, built a self-contained pump with a piston oscillated from outside by electromagnets. This “failed completely.” Flier Rosenberger eventually retired to Sandy Hook, Conn, to make moving pictures of microorganisms.

Colonel Lindbergh, who was at loose ends and had been introduced to Dr. Carrel by the anesthetist who attended Mrs. Lindbergh during the birth of their first two babies, was at once fascinated by the Carrel problem. He offered to lend his knowledge of mechanics. His first effort was a rocking, glass spiral which swished blood to the top of the apparatus and down through whatever organ lay connected thereto. This did not work.

Pertinacious, he tried other methods, and four years later perfected.

The Pump-Looking like a twist of vitrified bowel oozing out of a clear glass bottle, the Lindbergh perfusion pump consists of three chambers one above the other. The organ to be studied lies on the slanting glass floor of the topmost. Nutritious fluid from the lowest or reservoir chamber is driven up a glass tube connected with the organ’s artery, to and through the organ by pulsating gas pressure. After passing through the organ, the fluid runs down into the central or pressure equalization chamber, back to the reservoir chamber. There are no moving parts. The whole apparatus is actuated by compressed air from a tank, controlled by a rotary valve which creates the pulsating pressure. Nonabsorbent cotton in bulbs through which the gases pass, keeps germs from getting into the apparatus, the organ, or the fluid.

Thus the “heart” action of the pump. To imitate lungs, there is an inlet for air or other gas into the blood. To remove the waste products of this disembodied living. Dr. Carrel needs a glass “kidney.” Colonel Lindbergh, 3,000 miles away from the Rockefeller Institute, this week is cogitating that problem.

In this perfusion pump Dr. Carrel has kept thyroid glands, ovaries, hearts, kidneys and pancreases of guinea pigs and cats alive for as long as 30 days. He has caused pancreases to produce insulin; thyroids, thyroid hormone.

Meaning. By changing the constituents of the perfusing fluids, Dr. Carrel caused these organs to develop abnormalities. All this means “that the body can be dissected into living parts. . . . Anatomy has been rendered capable of describing the body as it really is. … It becomes possible to study wound healing. The process of inflammation can be analyzed in its elements. . . .

“The method of tissue culture and that of the culture of whole organs have provided us with the means of . .. . studying the food requirements of each cell type and of each tissue while active and at rest. Thus will be discovered the nature of the specific chemicals demanded by a given organ for its growth and normal function. Perhaps it may then become feasible to supply the living body with the substances indispensable to the development of any organ, or to its regeneration. Instead of injecting hormones into a patient, we .would supply the glands with appropriate nutrient substances and induce them to develop, or to regenerate, and again to secrete hormones. To bring about the regeneration within the pancreas . . . would be a far more efficient method of treating diabetes than to inject insulin daily into the body of the patient. . . .

“From this moment [we are] opening to experimental investigation a forbidden field: the living human body. . . . Organs removed from the human body, in the course of an operation or soon after death, could be revived in the Lindbergh pump, and made to function again when perfused with an artificial fluid. . . . When larger apparatus are built, entire human organs, such as pancreas, suprarenal, thyroid, and other glands . . . would manufacture in vitro the substances supplied today to patients by horses or rabbits.

“The construction of larger pumps may lead to other applications of the method. For instance, diseased organs could be removed from the body and placed in the Lindbergh pump as patients are placed in a hospital. Then they could be treated far more energetically than within the organism, and if cured replanted in the patient. A thyroid extirpated in the course of an operation … a kidney removed for tuberculosis, or a leg amputated for osteosarcoma, would perhaps heal under the influence of an artificial medium when living in vitro. The replantation would offer no difficulty, as surgical techniques for the suture of blood vessels and the transplantation of organs and limbs were developed long ago.” In effect, Dr. Carrel, with the Lindbergh pump, is looking for the fountain of abundant, replaceable age.

Carrels & Lindberghs. The eight years that the Carrels and Lindberghs have known each other have made them fast friends. Colonel Lindbergh deeply admires Dr. Carrel, when in Manhattan follows him all around the Rockefeller Institute. Dr. Carrel admires Colonel Lindbergh, declares him to be a great man. Dr. Carrel, as indicated by his philosophical Man the Unknown, does not think there are too many great men around.

The Lindberghs this week are in Kent, in a big L-shaped, hard-to-heat house composed of an old barn and four old cottages joined together. They rent the place and three acres of ground from Novelist Victoria Sackville-West, but are giving it up this month to move to the French island of Illiec, off the north coast of Brittany. Mme Carrel, who lives most of the year on the neighboring island of St. Gildas, recently secured it for them. With the barren island went a three-story stone house of nine big rooms. Illiec provides all the seclusion that the shy and, for their children, understandably frightened Lindberghs desire. But when the English Channel tide is out, the Lindberghs may walk over almost dry rock to St. Gildas.

Dr. Carrel is 65 this month. He will leave soon to spend the summer on his island, as he does each year. Vigorous in mind and body, he has a definite program of experimental work in front of him. Colonel Lindbergh also has vast projects on which to work.

It makes an arresting picture—one that French, Roman Catholic Dr. Carrel is romantic and mystic enough to appreciate — two men, one an ageless seer, the other a young and devoted inventor, sitting on two rocks in the middle of a sea, talking, planning ways to prolong the life and end the ills of mankind.

*Hoeber ($5). ^Hoeber ($4.50). -Fluids that maintain life in tissue are made variously of blood, blood serum, or artificial serums.

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