Science Fact: Replacement organs for the human body seem tantalizingly close, based on recent work. Today, artificial limbs, joints and arterial stents seem commonplace. Bionic organs, mechanical marvels that work within and with your body, are coming along rapidly: today, hearts for temporary use; soon, liver, lungs and pancreas.
But the Holy Grail, the pot of gold, is the exact replacement organ, grown from your own body’s cells, ready to pop into place when something wears out. We’re not there yet, but two interesting advances have recently been reported.
One comes from a project called “Body On A Chip”, where bits of tissue from human organs such as hearts, livers and kidneys are assembled using 3-D printing techniques and interconnected with artificial blood vessels. The goal is to use the full-up system to simulate the way the human body reacts to diseases or new drugs. Animal testing is expensive, controversial and not a good model for human treatment. It seem to me that these techniques for assembling human tissue could help be useful, not just on a microchip, but to help construct full-up functioning organs.
The other recent advance that relates to artificial organs is the creation of an immature human brain in a lab dish. Technically, it’s called a “cerebral organoid” and is a miniature model of a brain — it’s only the size of a garden pea, and it doesn’t have full brain function. However, it has enough neural function and organization that it can be used to study and hopefully treat microcephaly, a severe disorder of brain development.
The researchers in Vienna created these brain organoids both from embryonic stem cells and from stem cells which were derived from adult tissue. And that’s what’s exciting: they can take your adult cells, persuade them to become stem-cell-like, and then coax them into growing with many of the self-organizing features of a complex organ.
Science Speculation: This stuff sounds pretty attractive when you read about it from the distance of the printed page; however, there are undeniably creepy aspects to this research.
The Body On A Chip does not have a brain, but as it becomes more and more complex, we are creating something that acts like life, even if it is not alive. Moreover, the cerebral organoids are alarming-looking blobs of tissue with recognizable structures — they look like creepy life forms escaped from a nuclear apocalypse movie.
In both cases, advances in science are blithely approaching some natural barriers: bioethics, the “sanctity of life”, and the “yuck” factor. We all would like to order a replacement heart or liver when ours gives trouble, but the pathway from here to there passes through territory that’s in the domain of society and politics, not merely science.