❝A total of eight babies were born alive. They were all born in this lab, for my experiments. I have not kidnapped anyone; I have not smuggled people. I did not go against ethics. They were all my people! It is ethical when other scientists generate organs out of stem cells, but it is not when I produce organisms. Is that so? Who says that? Is it my colleagues jealously gritting their teeth because they cannot invent something useful by any chance?❞
It is a one-part science fiction story. Have a good read.
There was little chance of an event happening that could change the life of an adult in her late twenties who had already left behind the stormy years of high school and the joyful years of college and who had spent her weekdays working in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office for over eight seasons. As rare and almost miraculous as the formation of DNA from the primordial soup of a planet containing liquid water, two of such events, however, happened to Şule in the same hour.
One gloomy Monday morning, the young woman with her hair tied at the back was reading the news while sipping her granulated coffee mixed with cheap whitener. When she saw a headline that read “World-shaking incident! Illegal human experiments in Greece!” on a stock image of a lab purchased online, she rolled her eyes. She thought it was one of those stupid contents crafted as clickbait. Still, she clicked on the article so as to have an excuse for wasting a little more time before she set about her work for the day.
“World-shaking incident! Illegal human experiments in Greece!
An incredible scandal showed up following a drug raid at the old university building in Athens.
After the closure of Didymoi University in Athens in 1993, Professor Ilias Barakos, one of the country’s few wealthiest people, purchased the school’s land, its buildings, and all its fixtures and equipment as private property. Barakos had taken measures to prevent strangers from trespassing in the land and announced that he was conducting important scientific research and would publicize the results.
This led to a reaction on the part of some academics in the country. Faculty members arguing that a university land should not be the property of a single person repeatedly reported to the authorities that Barakos was doing illegal work inside. The land was raided by the police several times over the past twenty-five years.
Compartments underground hid crimes
The most recent raid was made when a local citizen came forward saying he saw Barakos’ aides burying bags filled with white dust in the soil.
At 3 o’clock at night, police troops entered the Didymoi land from all directions. As the buildings were searched, a policeman found one of the aides trying to break into a pit in the middle of the field.
The pit turned out to be the exit for one of the tunnels leading to the underground compartments, which remained undiscovered until today.
A scene reminiscent of medieval dungeons
In the compartments below there were no drugs but a gruesome sight. Unidentified half-naked people were found in cells separated by iron bars. The individuals, ages 25 to 27, were reported to not even know how to speak.”
While the news article went on, Şule’s blood was running cold, and she had no strength to read the rest. She sighed and pressed the top right button. “So many lies just to get a click!” she thought.
She worked pensively until her lunch break. She could not get her mind off that news article. Her imagination envisioned the likely story of those poor people dressed in rags, and the images she produced became more and more sad. She finally decided to do some more research. She typed “Ilias Barakos” into the search engine and chose English as the language. Here, on the first page, hot news reports by world-famous news channels were listed.
She clicked on the link which read: “Barakos, the lead figure in the human experiments scandal: I have not kidnapped anyone, I have not smuggled people. I did not go against ethics. (CCB, 14 hours ago)”
This website featured a news report similar to the post she read on the website she visited in the morning. A testimony by the suspect was also included here. The professor admitted to having experimented with those people and even told that he had only purchased the university land for this purpose. However, the subjects had not been kidnapped and brought to the laboratory from outside.
“I produced them all myself,” the professor said. “The placenta or, in terms you can understand, the piece of flesh expelled from the mother’s womb during labor, is very rich in stem cells. Stem cells are our building blocks! They can transform into all tissues and organs.
I separated the stem cells from the placentas I had people collect from various hospitals. I produced an artificial human womb using the first incoming cells. I controlled and activated this organ by means of low-voltage electric currents. Then I placed other stem cells in the uterus and let them grow into embryos. A total of eight babies were born alive. They were all born in this lab, for my experiments. I have not kidnapped anyone; I have not smuggled people. I did not go against ethics. They were all my people!
It is ethical when other scientists generate organs out of stem cells, but it is not when I produce organisms. Is that so? Who says that? Is it my colleagues jealously gritting their teeth because they cannot invent something useful by any chance?”
Feeling a chill, Şule glanced through the lower paragraphs. The assistant who was responsible for collecting the placentas told during his interrogation that he had paid visits to a number of hospitals in Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. At the very bottom was a link to photos of the “lab people.”
Although she fought herself not to look at the photos, her curiosity prevailed in the end. Trying to avoid catching the subjects’ blank glances, she first read the informational captions under each image. Barakos had named them with Greek ordinal numbers. The male subjects’ names ended with “-os”, and the female subjects’ names ended with “-a”. Protos… Deftera… Trita… Tetartos… Pemptos… Ektos… Ebdomos… Enata…
After she had scrolled the page several times, she mustered the courage to look directly at the subjects. She looked slowly up at their faces. When Deftera’s turn came, her heart skipped a beat. Her eyebrow shape, her eyes, her nose, her lips, her chin, her cheekbones… She knew this face. This face was her own. The subject named—or numbered—Deftera was as similar to Şule as her twin sister.
Her blood pressure dropping, she suddenly felt faint. She had to take time off from work and spend the rest of the day at home.
Since they were born out of cells stolen from placentas, these people must have been the genetic twins of free people living in the outside world. It took more than two weeks for Şule to recover from her shock. She consulted the authorities and provided them with a DNA sample to find out if Deftera really was her genetic twin. When she went to the hospital, she sought a consultation with a physician from another specialty and had an X-ray of her aching shoulder. It was a long-standing, insidious but bearable pain. That is why she had postponed her examination until that day.
The days of her waiting, while few, were very slow. Eventually, Şule went to the hospital to learn both the gene test result and the x-ray results.
She was stunned when she entered the lounge in the genetics unit. Her twin, who was given a short haircut and dressed in a hospital gown, was sitting right there, staring in front of her with a still expression. As soon as the results were released, Greek authorities had sent Deftera to Turkey.
“Alone in a lonely, helpless, crowded and colorful life,” she thought. She felt her heart broken. Without any hesitation or a feeling of remoteness, she walked up to her and softly spoke her name.
Deftera raised her head when she heard the voice. She looked into Şule’s eyes. Somehow, Şule, the twin who grew up in the heart of society, felt an urge to cry.
There was a policeman with the stranger girl. Şule left them to learn the x-ray results and went to the doctor’s room. She wanted to get her muscle relaxant prescription and go out to the garden as soon as possible. In fact, there was no need to even go to the doctor for this simple shoulder pain. Why did she want to get this job out of the way last week and wasted time anyway?
She thought very strange events awaited her in the days ahead. It was because Şule had not told her parents anything yet.
“They have no idea you exist. They probably didn’t even think of you. You aren’t aware, either, that they exist, however. O stranger, let’s see if you’ll love this huge world! Have you ever imagined the cities, the seas, the fields that lie behind the walls of that hell called the laboratory?” she thought to herself.
She entered the doctor’s room and settled on the armchair. Not noticing the dark, painful look on the doctor’s face, she lined up her questions. Only five minutes was enough for Şule, who was glowing with joy, to come out of the room sobbing. Five minutes, two words.
There was very little chance of an event happening that radically changed the life of a twenty-six-year-old adult who had everything going for her, but in a single hour two of such events happened to her. One was Deftera’s arrival; the other was that the doctor said he suspected lung cancer just seconds ago. Additional tests were required to make a definitive diagnosis, but even the possibility was enough for Şule to shed tears.
Color MRI… Biopsy… PET-CT… It was soon realized that the doctor’s suspicions were correct.
Şule had to undergo heavy chemotherapy. The lung cancer had progressed in the most insidious way possible and spread to surrounding tissues without any symptoms except shoulder pain. The doctors were talking privately among themselves that there was little chance of success. In the meantime, Şule’s parents arrived in Istanbul from Edirne to support her.
In the hustle and bustle, Deftera’s presence could be forgotten. However, Şule wanted her twin with her even in her most sluggish condition. She sat her next to herself and tried to teach her to speak, to read and write, and simple math. This was the sick woman’s greatest source of good spirits. Time was passing cruelly fast. One’s hair was growing while the other one’s was shedding; one’s body was recovering while the other one’s was melting.
As the treatment process progressed, a growing fear of death swept Şule. She came to regard Deftera more as a surrogate who would replace her after her death and continue her unfinished life than as a sister. She tried to prepare her for this “duty” by explaining her one by one everything she liked, took an interest in, thought, or opposed during her healthy life.
She asked for the CD player, which had fallen from popular esteem since smartphones came out, from the far back shelf of the pantry. For three days, she rotated the disc with a red-haired girl scratched on its cover and had her memorize her favorite song under the weary glances of the nurses.
“Come, look, sky is still on one of…” started Şule.
“… my hands,” continued Deftera.
“And shooting stars on other.”
When the doctor bluntly said, “We can get your daughter out of the hospital and terminate the treatment,” it was three months into the diagnosis. “Chemotherapy has no effect anymore, other than to cause her pain; cancer cells have already spread to all of her organs. It would be much better for her to spend her last days at her home.”
As the mother and father listened to these bitter words, they heard a scream from Şule’s room reaching the end of the corridor. The doctors, nurses and parents filled the room, ready for any intervention. However, the girl’s scream was not caused by pain or ache.
“Deftera is not here!” the patient was crying, with hiccups. “She ran!”
Indeed, the former subject was nowhere in the hospital. She had left no trace behind. For three days, they searched all over Istanbul for the young woman, who had dropped off the face of the earth. They reported to the police offices around Turkey. Meanwhile, as Şule’s only source of good spirits was gone, she got worse and was taken to intensive care following her loss of consciousness.
“Say goodbye, get ready,” the doctors were saying. “She won’t wake up.”
At the end of the third day, the family received a phone call from Edirne Police Department. Deftera was caught trying to escape from Turkey to Greece. Although she was interrogated at the police station, she never spoke. The court ruled for her acquittal on the grounds that her perception ability was still lacking and therefore she did not have criminal liability.
When Şule’s father returned to the hospital with Deftera, the patient was still in intensive care. Her mother was waiting in a seat in front of the service, and her eyes were red from weeping. The former subject walked into a corner. She leaned against the wall. She put her index finger in her mouth and touched her little tongue. She was vomiting. First, the remnants of the last meal she ate came out, then some gastric juice, and finally a portable memory in a plastic package.
With the memory opened, the facts were revealed. Before she left the lab, Deftera secretly had taken a portable memory containing important documents with her and threw it on the ground so that it could not be found while passing through customs. When she escaped from the hospital and came back here, she swallowed it and hid it in her stomach so that it would not be taken away from her.
Ilias Barakos was talking about a method called “Phoenix Therapy” in the files in this flash memory.
“Phoenix, Anqa, Simurgh… Known by different names in many cultures, this mythological bird inspired me to develop my revolutionary scientific treatment method.
As you know, when Phoenix gets old and approaches death, it starts to burn. After turning into a handful of ashes, he shakes his hairless, fresh head as a baby so that he is born out of his ashes. In my opinion, this mechanism symbolizes the life cycle of cancerous cells.
Normal human cells cannot divide an unlimited number of times. Cleavage is controlled by long strings of bases called ‘telomeres,’ located at the ends of chromosomes. These sequences decrease with each division. When telomeres shorten to the critical point, cells stop dividing.
So a Phoenix representing normal cells could not be born from its ashes in all its freshness every time. He is born a little older each time, and at the end of a few life cycles, he would irreversibly burn down.
Cancerous cells, on the other hand, have the capacity to divide infinitely. They gain these properties through the telomerase enzyme. Telomerase preserves telomere length, limiting the number of divisions.
While this enzyme is not active in normal cells, it is very active in cancerous cells. Therefore, experimental studies on treatments targeting the telomerase enzyme are continuing in the academic world.
I, on the other hand, developed this treatment using an opposite approach. Phoenix therapy aims to increase, not reduce, the said enzyme. It is not necessary to reduce the cancer cells, but rather to increase them and ensure that they cover the whole body.
Because only two types of cells have high division ability and telomerase activity: cancer cells and stem cells.”
After this paragraph, oncologists were sure the study was ridiculous and stopped reading. Only Doctor Gökhan, who was in charge of Şule’s care, took it seriously and stayed in his room all night to read and evaluate the entire study.
Barakos listed the common characteristics of cancer cells and stem cells in the remainder of the study. For him, cancer was not a disease, but an opportunity for rebirth and renewal. The cause of cancer death, in turn, was the incompatibility between cancer cells and normal cells.
In the first phase of the treatment, it was necessary to destroy normal cells and to ensure the rapid proliferation of cancer cells. However, they had to complete this process and be over with it within hours. Otherwise, the incompatibility would hinder the functioning of the organs and cause death.
When the body became composed of cancer cells, these cells would be “trained” and restored to their previous DNA makeup. The second phase of the treatment needed to occur in the following order:
- The body would be moved to a cold environment, thus slowing down the metabolism and cell division.
- The techniques used during the production of organs from stem cells would be applied exactly on these new cells. Thus, the cells would specialize and regenerate the old tissues.
- After making sure that all cells were differentiated and symptoms such as excessive division and telomerase activity ceased, the body would be taken to a warm environment to accelerate the metabolism and the healing process.
Barakos admitted in the final parts of his study that the chances of success with this method of treatment were extremely low. “However…” he said, “if it is applied accurately, it will be possible to cure even the most severe cancer patient within a maximum of eight hours. The Phoenix legend was not spoken in vain; we humans are Phoenix. As long as we face rebirth and face death.”
The doctor, who wanted to apply this treatment to Şule as a last resort, initially encountered a great reaction from his colleagues. This unusual treatment proposal was against the rule which was the basis of medicine: “primum non nocere”, i.e. “First, do no harm!”
However, Gökhan insisted because he thought they should give this remedy a try. He carried out the procedures, signed documents that he assumed all responsibilities. Finally, it was decided to try the Phoenix therapy on Şule.
The discussions lasted two days. Meanwhile, Deftera had retreated to the room vacated by Şule. The hospital was so busy that no one was interested in her or questioned why she stayed there. The former subject was running the CD player at a low volume and listening to“Don’t Leave Me” over and over.
On the night of the treatment, the mother and father waited without sleep, hugging each other. As the day dawned, the fate of their daughters would become clear. Şule would either lie ice-cold on her bed or open her eyes to a new life.
The hour and minute hands were very lazy that night. Sleep was also shy and coward… The hours never passed. The eyelids of the doctors and those waiting were refusing to close.
There was an oncologist at the hospital who was never convinced of this method of treatment and strongly opposed it: Doctor Altan. He claimed that Phoenix therapy would kill the patient 100 percent, and urged the family and other doctors to give up. Nobody saw him on the night of the treatment. Şule’s doctor was more hopeful and proud in the absence of Altan. He was already in the mood for victory.
In the early hours of the morning, the body in the bed opened her eyes. She was still exhausted, but healthy. The light hitting her face caused her to squint out of reflex. The parents were waiting speechlessly, while the doctor was tearing up with joy and saying “We did it!”
This peaceful moment was interrupted when the door opened wide. Doctor Altan entered with the police behind him. While the police were directly handcuffing doctor Gökhan, who was suspected of Şule’s murder, he asked the family “Did you like what you did? You destroyed your daughter. Are you happy?”
He walked over to the living body in bed. “I tried to explain it to you. I tried to explain since the beginning. It is not the number of brain cells that determines a person’s personality, but the connections between those cells, that is, the electrical currents. You can generate the cells. But how do you bring the links back? Those links were all of Şule’s experiences and memories since she was a baby. It was a sense of self. You destroyed them all. Congratulations!”
“You are lying, here is our daughter alive!” the mom objected.
“Your daughter is alive, huh? Do you think that breathing organism is still your daughter? Yes… They carry the same genes. But they are not the same person. Just as Deftera and Şule are different people despite having the same genes, this nameless body and your daughter are also different people. Moreover, this new body will not even have a personality. Because there is no exchange between her synapses. Her brain is empty, entirely empty! She doesn’t even have the ability to learn. Enjoy your new child, who has only basic reflexes and will live and die as a piece of flesh!”
Not having uttered a word since the beginning, the father broke his silence saying “Why didn’t our doctor tell us these?”
“Your doctor didn’t even care about your daughter. Your doctor acted with the same motivation as Barakos; he was only after fame and money. Primum non nocere! First, do no harm! We, as doctors, look for ways not to harm a patient even more before we look for a treatment. Hippocrates did not make that statement for nothing centuries ago. Your doctor intentionally and knowingly destroyed Şule’s millions of healthy cells. He deliberately killed Şule.”
The mother cried out. Şule’s doctor was taken to the police station, to his future where he would be arrested with a demand for life imprisonment. At the same time, Deftera was lying on her bed in the room unaware of everything and listening to the song.
“Both fears and hopes are mine. Don’t leave me… Don’t leave me…”