Scientists are making breakthrough discoveries on how to create artificial body parts, everything from bionic bones to makeshift knees.
Think about what these advance could mean: no more season-ending athletic injuries (torn anterior cruciate ligament? We’ve got a new one!). Broken hearts can be fixed, literally. Blindness and deafness could be a thing of the past. And replacement bladders could wipe out the adult diaper marker.
“I think it’s a really promising area,” said William Murphy, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We’re starting to see significant progress on engineering individual tissue types.”
Murphy’s specialty is in tissue engineering, and he operates a lab at the university that works with mechanical biomaterials acting as regenerated body parts, as well as looking into stem cell development.
Here is a list of the top ten body parts that could be artificially engineered and their significance on the human race:
10. Skin and Cartilage
Thin tissue types such as skin and cartilage are on the cusp of widespread use, said Murphy. They are less complicated to engineer and therefore close to being engineered on a regular basis.
“The tissues that don’t require a functional vascular supply are probably those that have been closest to commercialization or clinical use,” he said. “There are some products that have been developed based on these methodologies.”
“The other area that’s had some fairly significant progress is tissues that tend to remodel themselves actively over time in the body,” Murphy said. “Bone is the best example of that; it’s constantly being re-absorbed and reformed. ”
A shattered bone could simply be replaced by artificial bone that is printed up, as like a copying machine. Badly broken bones don’t always heal correctly, and sometimes end up shorter or in need of amputation. Therefore, surgeons are looking into reproducing substitute bone segments that are copied to match the broken portion.
Dean Kaman, the man who invented the motorized Segway, has developed a prosthetic arm called the Luke arm, after Luke Skywalker from Star Wars who modeled this bionic arm. Kaman released a video on the Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers’ blog, of an armless man reportedly picking up a chocolate and eating it with a prosthetic model.
7. Brain’s Hippocampus
The hippocampus is responsible for a person’s ability to store brand-new memories, a different sort of long-term memory loss. (Those who remember Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates are nodding their heads right now.) The artificial hippocampus, which would help patients whose brains have been affected by stroke, epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease, is being tested at the University of Southern California.
In May 2006, researchers created an artificial penis for rabbits who were unable to mate normally, a breakthrough that may eventually help men who suffer from premature ejaculation.
“I would say that there’s promise that it could be translated to humans,” Murphy said. “We’re working on not just the penis, but all of the urogenital organs, including the bladder, urethers, etc. This whole system is being addressed.”
5. Knees and Joints
Tissue cartilage in the knee is extremely delicate, and is easily torn or ruptured through intense physical activity. Like the bone, this would be a replacement body part for those in need.
Researchers hope to ultimately find a long-term cure for arthritis, particularly in elderly persons whose cartilage simply disappears from the knee joints altogether.
Cochlear implants would help the connection from the ear to the brain; it’s kind of like adding a tiny microphone inside the head.
But there’s still work to be done. Implant users do not have proper pitch perception, which disallows the user from enjoying music or recognizing a speaker’s tone.
A cochlear implant is like a tiny microphone inside the head.
Same idea as the eye. Visual prosthetics can help retinas focus more easily, and can help a blind person see shapes. It’s probably a long way off, but more advanced technology might be able to cure blindness altogether.
“The sensory organs are a great target for this kind of technology,” Murphy said. “Components of the tissue engineering technologies can be used in the very near term to try to treat blindness and hearing loss.
Athletes will like this one. Medial collateral ligament injuries require a month of rest; anterior cruciate ligament tears take up to a year.
“The major challenge of ACL reconstruction isn’t getting it to heal, it’s getting it to heal fast,” Murphy said.
Scientists who have experience with fixing knee joint injuries would like to explore the realm of totally replacing torn MCLs and ACLs, making athletes’ lives a lot easier.
Researchers from the University of Virginia and elsewhere experimented with replacing ACLs in rabbits, and discovered that within 24 hours, these “rabbits could already bear their own weight on their knees, and showed fairly normal mobility.”
The most important organ in the body, the heart runs based on healthy blood cells. Scientists aren’t clear on how to rebuild a heart, but they can envision the act of replacing bad blood cells with good ones. Experiments on lab rats have been successful; the trick is making the jump to humans.