Is it possible to create a super hero? Jess Devonport, marketing and communications officer at the Society of Biology, looks at Captain America in the name of science.
Self-improvement is a pretty big thing these days. From glossy magazines holding up various celebrities for comparison, to pictures of scenic landscapes with motivational quotes bullying you into to trying harder, the important thing to remember is that you are not good enough.
Captain America wasn’t good enough for the US Army back in the 1940’s when he was just Steve Rogers, but luckily for him, bettering yourself is significantly easier in the Marvel universe, what with all the gamma rays, radioactive spiders and special formulas they have kicking around. Captain America’s Super Soldier Serum enhances metabolic function, increases his speed, strength, endurance, and turns him into Chris Evans, which we’re all very happy about.
Unfortunately, science hasn’t been able to keep up with Marvel in this respect, mostly due to the time-consuming scientific process, ethics, and the fundamental of laws of nature. But let’s say, for the moment, it has; and let’s also ignore the sketchy ethical and legal implications of creating a superhuman.
Making a super-soldier serum
Most performance enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormone were developed to treat stunted growth and muscle wasting associated with AIDS and some cancers. Due to their anabolic effect, less ethical athletes and body-builders soon began using these to increase strength and muscle mass.
Anabolic steroids promote protein production in skeletal muscle, as well as inhibiting the effects of cortisol on muscle tissue, increasing muscle rebuilding following exercise and recovery time. They also stimulate bone growth and remodelling, which would explain Captain America’s overall change in physique as well super-strength.
It’s not all great, though. Despite the androgenising effects of steroids, promoting the development of male characteristics, prolonged use of anabolic steroids can lead to enlargement of breast tissue, testicular atrophy, and reduced sperm count. Neuropsychiatric effects include increased aggression and violent behaviour, and in some cases, mania and psychosis. Arguably, such behaviours as wearing a superhero costume and insisting people call you “Captain” could be interpreted as signs of some form of psychiatric disorder.
Well, this is great; Captain America is clearly on steroids. But while they are helping to improve his strength, they don’t do anything for stamina.
Physical endurance can be artificially improved by increasing the amount of oxygen available to cells, known as blood doping. Erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone which stimulates production of red blood cells in response to hypoxia, and hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) stabiliser, which activates EPO, are produced by the body but have been developed as drugs to treat anaemia resulting from chronic kidney disease and some cancer therapies.
Blood transfusions, where red blood cells are taken from the body to be reintroduced prior to high-endurance activity, increase red blood cell count without the use of pharmaceuticals.
Despite the significant risk of heart attack, pulmonary oedema, and stroke, that comes with prolonged use of EPO, my money is on this as a component of the Super Solider Serum as it also stimulates wound healing and has been associated with effects on synaptic plasticity, neuronal connectivity, and memory-related neural networks. Also, it’s hard to imagine that, while on the run from SHIELD, Cap had time to stop for a blood transfusion in anticipation of his smackdown with the Winter Soldier.
For short-term bursts of speed, it’s possible that Captain America could use creatine supplements. Creatine is produced naturally, and works by storing high-energy phosphate groups, which are then used to quickly replenish adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecular “unit” of energy in cells, during periods of high intensity exercise.
Although there aren’t many diseases which require an increase in speed as treatment, creatine has been used medically to treat muscle-wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophies, neurodegenerative diseases, and mitochondrial disease, which results in extreme fatigue and an overall decrease in cellular energy.