Need a new body part? New blood? New bone, new heart? Well in the future you may be able to order one. Scientists and technologists are working towards a bio-engineered future where new tissues and new organs could be made to order.
We are looking at the start of a new science, which could create parts of a person in a petri dish.
This is a quantum step from organ replacement. This is about seeing our bodies differently and being able to replace the mechanisms of our being whenever we need to.
Some years ago I met Ray Kurzwell, one of the world’s most famous futurologists and credited with a number of significant inventions including the flat bed scanner and the first text to voice machine. In an interview I did with him, we were talking about how life spans are getting longer. I asked him whether he ever felt man could live for ever – “indefinitely” he said.
It was quite a claim – made even more surreal by the fact he almost dropped the line nonchantly into conversation. But the technology we are seeing being deceloped in this programme, does take us on the road to indefinite lives.
If you really want to, you can keen an old car going as long as you want. You just keep replacing the parts. At some point it becomes too expensive to bother but if we were talking about our on life, at what point would we not bother? If the technology existed to continually replace work out parts, could we not keep going indefinitely?
In a lab in a rather run-down part of Brooklyn in New York, amid shopping cart pushing rough characters and the sort of empty streets you think twice about walkijg down alone, is a lab which is part of the drive to develop this indefinite future.
They are making bones without bodies. Nina Tandon is the co-founder of Epibone. Sitting in her lab she told me “Well we’re hoping to disrupt the world of skeletal reconstruction and reinvent it by harnessing the power of our own cells to repair the body. Really there’s really no better replacement for you than you yourself.”
They are doing that by taking some animal bone and stripping it of its cells so it won’t be rejected by the body. That leaves it as a blank neutral canvas. Then the matrix of bone mineral, collagen and protein is shaped using the CT scan to form a scaffold, the support needed by cells to grow. The scaffold is then seeded with stem cells derived from a patient’s own body. These are capable of developing into many different tissues, including bone. So effectively they can take an animal bone, spread it with a bit of your cells which then turn it into a piece of your bone. They can then implant the bone into a body which sees it as part of itself.
At the moment they are testing this on very small bones in the lab, but it’s not a far stretch to see this developing into a science and technology that could help people replace worn out bones and joints.
Across the Atlantic, in the UK in an equally unimpressive building on a light trading estate in the UK is a company called Tissue Regenix, which is working on a technology that could replace people’s tendons.
The principle is the same as the one being used to grow bones. The bio-scaffolds are made from chemically treated animal tendons prepared under sterile conditions at their lab in the north of England.
Essentially the tendons come straight from the abattoir and are then inspected for any gross damage. They then g through a process called decellurisation which consists of a number of washes, each with a purpose, from removing living cells to killing bugs. So they are getting rid of any DNA basically, any contaminants, any bacteria, any fats. Just like Epibone, this company is manufacturing bio-scaffolds, on which a patient’s own cells will grow. Not only can this technology be applied to tendons but also to heart valves and skin. The aim is to repair wounds, and diseased or worn out body parts. People are living longer now. Kids born today could well live to be 100 years old. And unfortunately, your body was not designed to last to 100 years old. So things wear out and need replacing.
Regenerative medicine could be incredibly important in the future. It enables people to actually have a long-lasting, regenerative, maybe permanent repair to these problems that occur as you age or just carry on through life.
If you had to point to one piece of technology that could genuinely change the nature of what it is to be human, the science of regenerative medicine, could well be one to look at.