The future is now. No, we don’t have flying cars or fully autonomous human replacement bots like Data. Yet. But you can’t deny that technology has advanced rapidly over the past few years.
Some of the most exciting (and terrifying) leaps have been made in the field of medical science. Over the past year, countless headlines lauded the fabrication of yet another vital body part. Whether they’re organs built on a 3D printer or limbs grown from cells in a lab, the fact remains that we’re getting better and better at repairing ourselves.
There was a time when a failing organ or amputated limb meant death, or going through life with a disability. With amazing feats of bioengineering now becoming commonplace, those days may soon be behind us (if you’ve got the money, that is).
Here are five body parts that can now be made in a lab.
1. Bionic Ear
In May 2013, researchers at Princeton University announced that they had 3D printed a functional ear that can “hear” radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability. The scientists created cells and nanoparticles with an off-the-shelf 3D printer purchased off the Internet, then used a cell culture to combine a small coil antenna with cartilage.
Young Hannah Genevieve Warren was born without a fully developed trachea (windpipe), a condition known as tracheal agenesis. Earlier this year, a successful crowdfunding campaign helped obtain a new trachea that scientists grew in a lab, using stem cells extracted from Hannah’s hip bone. She was the youngest person to ever receive such an organ transplant. Although the implant was successful, Hannah never fully recovered from her condition. “Her new trachea was performing well, but her lungs went from fairly good, to weak, to poor,” wrote her parents on Give Forward. She passed away in July 2013.
In 2011, Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine wowed a TED audience by printing a model of a human kidney on stage. “A 3D-printed kidney, like other 3D-printed replacement organs, likely won’t become a reality within the next 10 or 15 years,” reports Live Science. “But [scientists] plan to use the simplified, miniature versions of 3D-printed organs created so far as guinea pigs for pharmaceutical drug testing — an idea that could help scientists to discover drugs suitable for humans more efficiently and ethically than animal testing.” Wake Forest scientists have already successfully implanted human patients with bladders grown in a lab using patient stem cells.
4. Eye Cells
In a paper published just weeks ago, University of Cambridge scientists announced proof-of-principle that an inkjet printer can be used to print two types of cells from the retina of adult rats ― ganglion cells and glial cells. “Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future,” wrote co-authors of the study Professor Keith Martin and Dr. Barbara Lorber. According to the researchers, this breakthrough could eventually lead to a cure for blindness.
5. Red Blood Cells
After 10 years of painstaking work, Samuel Danishefsky was recently successful in creating erythropoietin (EPO), the protein hormone necessary for producing red blood cells, in a laboratory. Danishefsky, a biological chemist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, hopes that his breakthrough will be able to replace the plant and animal cells that are traditionally used to make EPO via genetic modification.