Let’s say you get in a bad car accident and the front end of your car gets smashed. What do you do? Most likely, you call your insurance company, get some quotes, and take your damaged car into the body shop. The mechanics assess the damage and order you some new headlights, fender, bumper, radiator, and a few other parts. They install everything, throw on a fresh coat of paint, and you get a call in a few days to come and pick it up. With keys in hand and at first glance, it appears that your car was never in an accident at all. Now, there was also a chance that your body could have been damaged in the accident, and at times it’s a lot harder to fix you up as good as new. According to the official U.S. government website for organ and tissue donation, there are over 107,000 people in the United States currently waiting for transplant surgeries as of April 27, 2010.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the waiting list grows at a staggering rate of over 300 per month; only about 77 people receive an organ transplant each day, with 19 people dying each day because of the shortage.
In my book VISIONS, I had the opportunity to interview the top people in various fields of medicine and came to the conclusion that the Human Body Shop may be just around the corner. In approximately 50 years, the advancing technologies of medicine and tissue engineering could change everything. This is the next frontier: regenerative medicine. The idea is to grow human body parts essentially from scratch right in the laboratory. New technologies are allowing 3D printers to “print out” new human tissue in much the same way your inkjet printer at home does. These technologies are giving rise to new companies that seem to be popping up right in our own backyard: companies like Organovo out of San Diego, which is already starting to implement bio-printing systems, and Tengion out of Philadelphia, which has already grown a bladder in the lab.
Tengion basically takes some of our own cells and grows them in a culture for about seven weeks around a biodegradable mold. Once the organ is grown and implanted, the chance of the body’s rejecting it is very slim because it was grown from the body’s own cells. Transplant rejection is one of the main problems with organ transplants today; for example, if you are getting a heart transplant, the donor heart must be matched as closely as possible to your particular tissue type so that your body doesn’t reject it, which in many cases it still does. Universities all over the world are working on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, and some are making tremendous progress. If you remember, in early 2008, researchers at the University of Minnesota made headlines across the planet by growing an entire rat heart from scratch. These researchers took a dead rat heart and removed the cells, leaving behind a “scaffold” (temporary structure). This scaffold was then injected with new cells, which aided their own growth around the scaffold and resulted in a fully functional heart. This process is a bit different than the 3D printing technology, but still quite distinctive and groundbreaking.
The future of medicine will also coincide with the future of computing systems. For decades researchers have been trying, without much luck, to find ways to restore motion to patients who are paralyzed. Toyota recently designed a wheelchair connected to an electrode-filled helmet that a paralyzed person can operate with their brain alone. Although this technology is amazing in itself, it still doesn’t allow the person to get up out of the wheelchair, which is what they really want. In the future, however, a computer chip embedded in the body will connect the brain directly to an arm or a leg (bypassing the damaged or injured spinal cord), allowing the person to operate their limbs just as a healthy individual does. Just a few years ago, a neural implant was successfully “installed” into a 25-year-old man with a knife wound that had rendered him paralyzed. He eventually learned to move a cursor to perform remedial tasks on a computer and also to operate a robotic arm and hand. These technologies, too, are still in their infancy, but imagine what they will look like in 20 or 30 years. Paralyzed patients may be able to move their limbs again—a possibility once thought to be only a dream.
The idea of limb regeneration is not a new one by any means. Amphibians such as the salamander regenerate their limbs over and over throughout their lives. At times, they will get in a fight and lose part of a limb or part of their tail. Cells immediately begin moving to the affected area, working their magic, and before they know it, a new limb has replaced the missing one as if nothing happened at all. Scientists are paying close attention to this ability with hopes of making it one day possible for humans to regenerate missing parts. The military also has their own agenda and are very interested in the research behind regenerative medicine. In 2008, the Defense Department established an institute called the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, with a budget of $250 million over a 5-year period and the goal of developing various treatment options for servicemen and women who have been severely injured during their wartime service.
Amazing discoveries in various disciplines of medicine are happening every single day, with new papers and ideas being published weekly. The advancements in the past decade alone are absolutely astounding, and things are only moving forward. Of course, certain ethical issues have arisen around the growing of human organs in the laboratory, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see these technologies perfected and implemented in the next 10 to 20 years. The Human Body Shop may be well on its way to a wing of your local hospital—but don’t hold your breath in the meantime, as the organ donor waiting list will likely stick around until then.