How close are we to creating a real-life super soldier?

In his latest book Chasing Captain America, author and University of Victoria professor Dr. E. Paul Zehr looks at the super soldier's abilities and the real-life research that could replicate them.
In his latest book Chasing Captain America, Dr. E. Paul Zehr looks at the super soldier's abilities and the real-life research that could replicate them. (Ben Shannon/CBC)
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In 1941, comic book readers were introduced to a scrawny kid with a heart of gold named Steve Rogers, co-created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

He didn't have the chops to join the army, but was chosen to be boosted with the power of the super-soldier serum and vita-rays. He was pushed to the pinnacle of human potential: the superhero known as Captain America.

But how long does it usually take for science fiction to simply become science? How close would we be to creating a real-life super soldier? And if we had the capability to do it, should we?

E. Paul Zehr, director for the Centre for Biomedical Research at the University of Victoria, explores these questions in his new book Chasing Captain America: How Advances in Science, Engineering and Biotechnology will produce a Superhuman.

Zehr breaks down the categories of human enhancement into four rough categories: shape, move, longevity and think.

Shape the future

The "shape" category deals with things like physiology and metabolism, but it also reflects what Zehr calls our ever-present desire to change or modify the way we look.

That can involve everything from being body-conscious about one's weight to regulating hormones with treatments involving testosterone, cortisol or insulin.

Author, researcher and martial artist Dr. E. Paul Zehr has written three books examining the science of superheroes. (Jordan Zehr)
These hormone treatments are usually used to cure or supplement patients. Zehr posits that using them to augment someone already at the peak of their health could be the first step towards building a super soldier.

"The basic idea is to say, what if we take all those same techniques and apply them in folks who didn't have any so-called deficits, or weren't needing any rehabilitation or any reconstruction, but instead pushed them to a different level of performance?" he asked.

Manipulating these genes and hormones in the right way could produce results similar to the top performers in any Olympic sport. You could run as fast as a sprinter or as long as a marathon champion.

For seabound missions, you could become the next great freediver, able to dive under water without a tank for up to 20 minutes.

Move your body

Zehr uses the "move" category to talk mostly about muscle. Who can forget, of course, the impossibly buff physiques that dominate superhero comics?

Proteins like follistatin and myostatin regulate the size and rate at which we can grow our muscle tissue. Manipulating those proteins can enable subjects to build their muscle mass beyond the normal limits.

We've seen the results in animals like the Belgian Blue cattle. Thanks to "deleting" myostatin genes, they grow incredibly bulky, meaty bodies that eventually turn into a whole lot of steaks.

Belgian Blue cattle have been bred to have a defunct myostatin gene, which regulates muscle growth. Without that functioning gene product, muscles become huge. (Roby/Wikimedia Commons)

Combined with an advanced training regime, Zehr estimates a human could potentially increase their strength by up to 20 to 30 per cent.

He said researchers might be able to develop gene deletion procedures "that could have a clinical effect in folks" in about three to five years.

Live long and prosper

After his explosive debut in the 1940s — punching Hitler in the mouth on a famous comic cover —  Steve Rogers was later frozen in ice and resurrected decades later, without a hint of aging, to lead the Avengers.

Rogers' cryogenic nap could be compared to animals that hibernate during the winter months: slowing down their metabolism and heart rate to survive entire seasons when food becomes scarce.

Adapting these abilities for human use might be crucial to future projects such as long-term space flight. An expedition to Mars, for instance, could take months or up to nearly a year to reach its destination.

"If we're going to have long duration [space flight] missions, we're going to have to be thinking about things like slowing down metabolic processes for energetics, for the aging process itself, and trying to apply what we can from other animals — stealing some of their techniques basically," said Zehr.

Think about it

As Zehr writes, Steve Rogers wasn't a world-class genius before he became Captain America — but he did have heart and integrity.

The enhancements, however, accelerated his mind as well as his body.

"He's thought of as being very tactically smart when it comes to battle and strategy," said Zehr. He noted, however, that Batman, a.k.a. the world's greatest detective, probably ranks higher on fans' ranked lists of comic book geniuses.

Chasing Captain America: How Advances in Science, Engineering and Biotechnology Will Produce a Superhuman (ECW Press)

A recent experiment may seem even wilder than Cap's origin story. In 2014, neurologists implanted test tube-grown human brain matter into the mice of brains — giving them half-mouse, half-human grey matter.

The affected mice scored higher on multiple memory and cognitive tests than regular mice, such as running mazes.

Zehr also floated the possibility of implanting the memories of animals into humans, possibly granting them portions of the animal's knowledge, skills and ability. It's a real-life version of Neo learning kung-fu via download in the Matrix.

He estimates that some form of animal-hybrid stem cell procedures similar to the human-mouse brain experiment could become a reality in 10 to 15 years – but we probably won't see full-on memory implantation until 10 to 20 years from now.

Is it ethical?

According to Zehr's research, several aspects of the super-soldier formula may be only a few years or decades away from reality. But just as importantly to him is the question of whether it would be ethical to follow Captain America's blueprint at all.

"We're not the first species who has the power in their own hands to modify out biology to move towards becoming a different species. Is that OK? I don't know," he said. "I don't think that's for one person to decide. That's for our whole society to think about."

In a healthy human, every aspect of one's physiology is in equilibrium. This is known as homeostasis. Supercharging any one factor beyond natural levels could destabilize the rest of the body.

A 13-foot Captain America statue is revealed during a dedication ceremony at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York on August 10, 2016. Marvel unveiled the bronze statue of the superhero in honor of Captain America's 75th anniversary. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Furthermore, it's hard to predict just what kinds of side effects would arise if all of these treatments or enhancements were administered to a single subject, all at once. An attempt at creating Captain America could just as soon create Dr. Frankenstein's creature.

"It's pretty crippling actually — the kinds of things that happen," he says of the potential damage these experiments could currently wreak on the human body.

He suggested that it might be more feasible to create an Avengers-like team where each member is given a single enhancement rather than try to give one person the full suite.

"Here's your one [member] where we've done muscle strength enhancement. Here's the other person where we've got longevity enhancement. Here's this other person where we've got memory and computational enhancement," he said.

He urges that the scientific community should have a more open dialogue with others to figure out the best applications of research for the benefit of all.

"Our knowledge of scientists has no value unless other people are aware of what we do and are engaged in the discussion and know all about it and can contribute to it," he said.

What would it take to make a superhero like Captain America? (Ben Shannon/CBC)