The medical technology of bioprinting, artificially creating human organs and body parts, is racing ahead. How long could it be before we can replace any part of our bodies?
Totally life-changing, is how Stephen Power described his operation. Two years ago a bad motorcycle accident left him with severe damage to his face. ‘I broke cheekbones, top jaw, my nose and fractured my skull.’
For the first time in the UK, surgeons in Swansea operated on his face using 3D printing to create precisely designed artificial bones. The result has been an outstanding success. His chief surgeon said the 3D printing took away the guesswork that can be so difficult in reconstructive work: ‘I think it’s incomparable – the results are in a different league from anything we’ve done before.’
This is just the latest in a series of impressive and rapid advances for the technology. Computer-operated 3D printers which create objects layer by layer in plastic have been around since the 1980s. Now affordable versions for use at home are coming onto the market.
Recently there has been considerable research into bioprinting – in which organs and body parts are created in a similar way in living tissue. In this process, layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three-dimensional structures. Last year a human ear was successfully created to correct a congenital birth defect. Transplants have also been made of bio-printed windpipes and bladders. The race is now on between biotechnology companies to see who can produce a workable, full-size bio-printed liver first.
Some suggest that in the future, damaged or worn-out organs or limbs might be as easily changed as going to the garage and putting a new set of tyres on the family car. And if that could be done endlessly, it holds out the possibility that humans could live with good health and fitness for many times our current lifespans – even, in theory, forever.
A matter of life and death
Many are predicting that at some point in the future it will be possible to replace almost any part of our body. At present there are far too few human organs available for transplant and many people die before finding a suitable match for their liver, kidney or heart. Being able to bioprint organs on demand would save thousands of lives every year.
But bioprinting also raises profound and troubling moral questions. While fewer people would die young and many would live happier, healthier and longer lives, who would control this technology? It would be an alarming prospect indeed if a company could develop organs and charge whatever it liked for their use, giving it the power of life and death over those in desperate need. And it could create a disturbing schism between those wealthy enough to be able to afford this superhuman surgery, and those growing old in their imperfect bodies.
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Lecturer: Abdulkhaliq Mohamed Sheikh Osman-Birmingham UK