If you've been following the three-d printing/additive manufacturing story, and the genetic engineering story, you'll be interested in this one. Frankly, I view it with a mixture of ambivalence, as being something that could be profoundly good, and profoundly bad. The story, as you can guess from the headline, is about the fact that some scientists have now 3-d printed the first artificial human heart. But there's a catch here, and it's a profound one, in this article shared by V.T.:
The engineered heart completely matches the immunological, cellular, biochemical and anatomical properties of the patient
In a major medical breakthrough, Tel Aviv University researchers have "printed" the world's first 3D vascularised engineered heart using a patient's own cells and biological materials. Their findings were published on April 15 in a study in Advanced Science.
Until now, scientists in regenerative medicine — a field positioned at the crossroads of biology and technology — have been successful in printing only simple tissues without blood vessels.
I was struck by the fact that apparently, no babies were aborted, ground up, and fetal stem cell tissue harvested to accomplish the feat, which seems all but par for the course for similar developments elsewhere in the world. And the utility of the accomplishment, using a patient's own cells, is rather obvious, as the article points out:
For the research, a biopsy of fatty tissue was taken from patients. The cellular and a-cellular materials of the tissue were then separated. While the cells were reprogrammed to become pluripotent stem cells, the extracellular matrix (ECM), a three-dimensional network of extracellular macromolecules such as collagen and glycoproteins, were processed into a personalized hydrogel that served as the printing "ink."
After being mixed with the hydrogel, the cells were efficiently differentiated to cardiac or endothelial cells to create patient-specific, immune-compatible cardiac patches with blood vessels and, subsequently, an entire heart.
According to Prof. Dvir, the use of "native" patient-specific materials is crucial to successfully engineering tissues and organs.
"The biocompatibility of engineered materials is crucial to eliminating the risk of implant rejection, which jeopardizes the success of such treatments," Prof. Dvir says. "Ideally, the biomaterial should possess the same biochemical, mechanical and topographical properties of the patient's own tissues. Here, we can report a simple approach to 3D-printed thick, vascularized and perfusable cardiac tissues that completely match the immunological, cellular, biochemical and anatomical properties of the patient."
The researchers are now planning on culturing the printed hearts in the lab and "teaching them to behave" like hearts, Prof. Dvir says. They then plan to transplant the 3D-printed heart in animal models.
Of course, the implication here is obvious: if one can do this with hearts, one can do it for almost any organ in the body once they "wear out" and need replacement: "Maybe, in ten years," the article concludes, "there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely."
Probably so. One can even envision a time or circumstance that the technology becomes so commonplace that the procedure becomes cheap, affordable, and can be done by "licensed organ printers" rather than doctors, in a kind of out patient procedure. And while we're indulging in all this high octane speculation, one my even envision a kind of "organ dealership" or "Jiffy Lube," a kind of drive-through organ replacement "garage," complete with warranties and expiration dates, and so on.
Now, on the one hand, I can see that this developing technology is a good thing, because it extends life, and life is a good thing. Call me old fashioned, but I believe ardently in the sanctity of life. But it's that, precisely, that also bothers me here, with the article's own admission that one can envision a whole new branch of medicine emerging: organ-printing and replacement, and with it, a cheapening of life, a view that our bodies are so many collections of organs to be replaced when "worn out." I wrote about this years ago, at the very end of my first "foray" into this strange alternative research field, in The Giza Death Star. I wrote about it in the context of a view of those ancient texts which record extraordinarily long life spans for our early ancestors. The biblical texts have humans living in some cases from half a millennium to almost a thousand years. In the Mesopotamian and Egyptian king's lists, these life spans stretch tens of thousands and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of years.
And with the advent of this new "organ-printing and replacement" branch of medicine, once again modern science is providing a context from which to view those ancient claims as perhaps having a basis in a similar technological reality. But as I put it at the end of The Giza Death Star, the danger of viewing organs as so many replaceable "body parts" is what it does to the human spirit. As I warned then, the danger of becoming bored with life to the point of a kind of nihilistic anomie or antinomianism emerges, and one can imagine the emergence of a Hitler or a Stalin with thousands of years to perfect the evil in their souls. On can, of course, imagine a Francis of Assisi or Seraphim of Sarov perfecting their sanctity as well. It's that potentiality that raises another high octane speculation: imagine also a "board" which must "approve" people to be recipients of such medical-technological boons. To be "approved," one will have to have demonstrated holding the "correct opinions." And given the fact that certain state legislatures are openly applauding the passage of full term abortion laws, and that certain state governors in this country are openly and calmly talking about "post-birth abortions" - infanticide - on television, one can fairly guess that people like Seraphim of Sarov or Francis of Assisi won't be on the list of "acceptable recipients."
See you on the flip side...