Model Homo Sapiens
written by Kate Jiang
“Doctor, why did you choose to be a scientist?” asked Carlie.
I put down the syringe and turned around. The little girl sitting on the bench was staring at me, her wide eyes filled with curiosity. She wore a white hospital gown that was too long for her, which made me think it was from the previous Carlie that had lived in this cell.
The metal bracelet around her wrist had the number “933B” on it. Carlie-933B.
“I was born with a genetic disease,” I replied. “I was very sick when I was about your age, so sick that the doctors thought I wouldn’t survive to be an adult. But my parents signed me up for a clinical trial, and the scientists cured me. So I decided to become someone like them when I grew up.”
“But Doctor, what’s a clinical trial?”
“It’s—” I paused, trying to find the right words to explain the concept. Am I even supposed to explain it to her? “It means a new drug is being tested on a small group of people before it can be used for everyone. Could you lift your left arm for me?”
“Does that mean I’m also in a clinical trial?” Carlie raised her arm as I grabbed the ethanol rub.
“I guess you could say that.” Pre-clinical would have been more accurate.
“Maybe I’ll see my parents when I come out from the clinical trial!”
I stabbed the needle into her vein. Carlie closed her eyes and flinched at the pain. “Doctor—I’ll never get used to this.”
“It’s all done now. Good job.” I threw the syringe into the hazardous waste bin and pulled out a box of colorful band-aids from the cabinet above. “Which one would you like today?”
“Can I get the purple one with a blue flower in the middle?”
I did what she asked, and Carlie returned me with a “Thanks!” and a delightful smile.
I checked my watch. The research assistant who should be here to take Carlie away for a checkup was late today. Not willing to leave the girl alone in the cell, I sat down next to her.
“I’m just thinking, I want to be a scientist like you when I grow up.”
Don’t. “I thought you said you wanted to find your parents when you grew up.”
Carlie giggled. “That, too, but why can’t I have both? Find my parents, then become a scientist like you. I’ll do clinical trials on people, find cures for diseases, and everyone will live happily ever after. I think what you’re doing is great and I want to be someone like you!”
I could not answer her. This was not the first time I heard such words from a Carlie, and I had yet to figure out a way to deal with this situation.
Then, I heard someone pushed the door open. A research assistant walked into the cell, leaned against the wall and flipped through his notes. “Uh—933B, that’s the one right? Time for her checkup.” He said to me without sparing a glance at the little girl.
Carlie stood up and waved at me, “See you around, Doctor!” and followed the assistant into the hallway.
I sat in silence for a few minutes, trying to swallow my uneasiness. If only I will see you around.
– – –
The institute where I worked, The Research Center for Human Disease Modeling, was the home of around 50 Carlies—human clones that had their genomes sequenced and were being used as Homo sapiens models for medical studies.
These human models were not established until the mid-21st century. Before that, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Drosophila melanogaster, Caenorhabditis elegans, Danio rerio—and of course the old golden standard of disease models, Mus musculus—had been the classical model organisms used in biological research, until people started to argue their efficiency and accuracy.
Mice have a shorter lifespan and different immune system from humans; cell lines and organoids grow in petri dishes and do not capture the full picture of a living organism. As horrifying as it is, throughout history biomedical has advanced through unethical human experiments; fortunately, no scientists were planning to repeat the crimes that had taken place hundreds of years ago.
But we still wished to push the boundaries of medical science. We still wished to save lives. Why not artificially generate and sacrifice a subset of humans from an isogenic background and use them to model diseases and perform the experiments that were recognized as unethical?
And so the scientists, the policy makers—the society—came to a conclusion.
They established such research centers all around the world, each with their own “lineages” of model humans.
Regardless of how morally acceptable it was.
– – –
Now I was standing in the lab. Or the morgue—conceptually the same place.
It had been a week since I last saw Carlie-933B, alive and well. Yet there she was, lying on the table—the little girl who said she wanted to be a scientist like me, who waved to me and said she would see me around, who had a severe reaction to the drug I gave her and was sacrificed a few days after entering a vegetative state. I murdered her.
“You better get to work soon,” The Chief Researcher—my boss—said from the other side of the table, “we don’t have all day to mourn.” She handed me a scalpel. “Need to take her brain out and figure out what’s wrong with the drug.”
I did not move.
“What did you just say?”
“I said, ‘I can’t.’” The scalpel felt cold in my hand. “I can’t—I won’t dissect her. I’ve had enough of this. We shouldn’t be sacrificing Carlies’ lives for the sake of ‘science’!”
The Chief stared at me. “You’re not the first person who has told me that.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Perhaps I should stab her with this scalpel. If I were to cut open a human being today, it would not be Carlie. Yet, the scalpel felt heavier than it was supposed to weigh, so heavy that I could not raise my hand.
The Chief walked around the table and stood right in front of me.
“Leave as you wish,” she said. “But let me ask you this: do you know 508F? How about 155V?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Those,” the Chief said, in a low voice, “were some of the Carlies that were sacrificed to find the treatment for the genetic disorder you had.”
The scalpel slid from my hand. The Chief picked it up from the ground and carefully put it away, out of my reach.
“See, I like to do a background check on all the researchers when I hire them. You mentioned during the interview that you want to be a scientist because science saved your life. Your story rang a bell so I made a couple of additional calls. Indeed, that clinical trial you were enrolled in was one of the most significant breakthroughs this research center ever had. Do you think you would’ve lived until today if not for the girls?”
I knew the answer to her question too well. My childhood had been a nightmare: the pain, the fever, none of the medicine was effective, hearing my mom cry in the middle of the night when it hurt too much to sleep, a little boy being told directly by the doctor that he had, at most, two more years to live.
The Chief did not wait for me to reply. “We sacrificed them for the greater good. They died in the cage so that more people could be saved. We did challenge trials with them, tested new therapies with unknown safety profiles on them, tracked the chronic effects of diseases throughout their childhood, monitored their behaviors in the absence of genetic variations—the data we gained were invaluable, the speed of the research we accelerated were exceptional. And above all, I just found it terribly, terribly hypocritical of you to disregard all of these, when the only reason you are standing right here is the death of these girls.”
She turned away from me. “Now get out.”
– – –
As the sound of the researcher’s footsteps faded, the Chief stood beside the table. Time to get to work, she thought as she reached for the scalpel.
933B was lying still. She looked small and fragile, her life terminated too early as an experimental subject. A purple band-aid, with a blue flower in the middle, was stuck on her rigid left arm; it seemed like nobody had bothered to take it off.
The Chief put down the scalpel.
Time to get to work, but not today.
Tomorrow I have to post a new job advertisement again.
After putting 933B’s body back into the cold chamber, the Chief stepped into her office, fumbled around in the drawer under her desk until she found a half-empty bottle of sleeping pills.
She swallowed a couple of pills, turned off the lights in the office and lied down on the couch. The pills, however, had never been effective since she started working in this research center. Even when she closed her eyes, she felt like the ghost of the girls were lurking through the darkness, waiting for the future they never had a chance to live. Knowing well enough that the insomnia would keep her awake the entire night, she opened her eyes and stared at the gloomy ceiling.
Perhaps the sleepless nights were the only evidence of her still being human.