Since its cinematic debut on December 18, 2009, the motion picture Avatar has been a cultural phenomenon in more regards than just revenue. That’s not to say that the James Cameron science fiction epic isn’t noteworthy as the second highest-grossing film of all-time behind Cameron’s other blockbuster Titanic, having earning $77 million on opening day and surpassing the billion dollar mark in revenue in only three weeks of screening. Avatar also shattered international box offices, and was even recently surprisingly pulled from Chinese theaters after breaking the Chinese box office record.
However, it’s the cultural impact that has drawn the most attention, even as Cameron accepted the Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Motion Picture ‘“ Drama at the 67th annual ceremony of the Hollywood Foreign Press. With very little background or preconceived knowledge of plot or characters, fans have taken to Avatar with the same fervor as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy all once respectively created. And the film is also raising eyebrows from the medical community because of the film’s protagonist, Corporal Jake Sully.
Played by Sam Worthington, Jake Sully is a paraplegic Marine called to duty on the moon-planet Pandora in the Alpha Centauri solar system after his scientist twin brother was murdered. Jake’s presence is needed by a mining outfit looking to secure a large amount of the precious element unobtanium, as he must replace his brother and help restore good faith with Pandora’s native inhabitants, the Na’vi. In order to do so, Jake must go through a complicated DNA-combination process that would have him enter a host Na’vi body ‘“ an avatar ‘“ and act as a native.
The plot unfolds into an epic tale ‘“ a combination of a love story and classic parable of man vs. nature. But not lost in the elements of the award-winning story is the opportunity that Jake receives to walk again through his avatar and certainly a promise that he receives to have his human legs fully restored through the process of neuroregeneration.
Neuroregeneration is a process that repairs and restores nerve tissues and cells, and is currently being researched by close to a dozen companies ‘“ some public and some private. More than 90,000 people suffer nervous system injuries each year and an additional 10,000 people suffer severe spinal cord injuries. The idea of neurogeneration is incredibly complicated, as even in Avatar the year was 2154 and the process was incredibly expensive. But that hasn’t stopped more than $450 million dollars to be invested in the progress of procedures that could eventually repair brain damage and help people walk again.
The companies that are working to achieve success with neurogeneration are currently using stem cells to attempt to replicate damaged cells in the brain and throughout the body. While scientists have shown progress in using stem cells to replicate organ cells ‘“ lungs, liver, kidney, etc. ‘“ it’s proven to be a greater feat to influence stem cells in brain reparation. The brain is an incredibly and almost impossibly complex organ, and the introduction of stem cells for the purpose of repair is a matter of timing. Stem cells have to be stable and developed, otherwise they may not form properly and maintain the connections and currents of the brain.
Despite these areas of concern and challenge, human trials have already been approved, and scientists are moving forward with the belief that neuroregeneration is not just the dream of James Cameron and a world that exists beyond our solar system. In February 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first embryonic stem cell treatment trial for spinal cord injuries. The FDA has also previously approved testing and trials for stem cell research and treatments for Batten’s disease and Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, both of which are fatal nerve disorders that affect children at young ages.
Success in these neuroregeneration trials isn’t far-fetched, at least not to the companies pumping money and effort into making it happen. General optimism in the scientific community would contend that trials for stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and a variety of other brain and nerve disorders would be next. And success with the embryonic stem cell trials in spinal cord injuries could mean great advancements in curing paralysis.
Additionally, James Cameron’s work with computer-generated imagery and stop motion animation and photography has been advantageous for the medical world as well. By creating computer animations in a 3-D environment, scientists and medical professionals have been able to look at common surgical procedures with entirely different results. As Hollywood advances technologically, thankfully so does medicine.