As bizarre as it may sound, the human population is just steps away from making kidneys in a Petri dish. The current pace of research in the field of synthesizing artificial organ replacements gives a clear picture of how close we are to developing a perfectly functional man-made organ that works just like a natural organ, if not better.
It is not far in the future when we might have tutorials teaching us how to install an artificial eye if we lose one. Before diving into the topic, let’s first understand what exactly we mean by an artificial organ.
What are Artificial Organs?
In layman’s terms, an artificial organ is a distinctly modeled device that can be implanted into the human body—allying with living tissue—to either replace a natural organ or duplicate a naturally occurring function so that the patient may lead a normal life. The conventional man-made organs we know of are the:
Just like a natural heart; the artificial heart also conducts blood circulation and oxygenation in the body. It is further classified into two types.
1. The Heart-Lung Machine:
Scientific Definition: “It is a mechanical pump that maintains a patient’s blood circulation and oxygenation during heart surgery by carrying blood from the veins directly to the oxygenator instead of the lungs and returning it to the body through the arteries.
The oxygenator works like an artificial lung and removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen to the blood that is pumped into it. In 1953, The first successful clinical use of a heart-lung machine was conducted by American surgeon, John H. Gibbon, Jr.”
2. The Mechanical Heart:
This includes completely synthetic heart and ventricular assist devices (VADs). These devices are capable of aiding the pumping action of the heart for longer time durations with little to no damage to the blood components (RBCs, WBCs, etc).
In 2008, Carmat, a French company engaged mainly in making heart prosthetics, was able to develop the first fully functional synthetic heart with a clinical life expectancy of five years. However, the first receiver of the device died 75 days after the surgery.
It is a machine that helps in removing undesirable substances from the patient’s blood or in adding the needed constituents to it. Through these processes, the machine can maintain the osmotic balance of the blood as well as reduce toxin accumulation in the bloodstream.
These are the substitutes for missing human body parts made by machines. The most common ones are legs, arms, and eyes. The origin of prosthetics dates back to the 16th century, when workers and army men who lost their limbs in factories or war, were given replacements such as a metal hand or a wooden leg.
Talking about the new age of synthetic organs; our advancements in the fields of science have enabled us to make artificial substitutes for even the most sophisticated organs such as a mini-brain and a mini-stomach.
Trials for an artificial retina (image-sensing part of the eye) are also underway. We will soon be able to reproduce a whole baby in a science laboratory.
How Are They Made?
The technical term given to the process of making synthetic human organs is Bioartificial Organ Manufacturing. There are numerous advanced technologies involved in the process like- 3D printing, stem cell-induced organ generation, and rapid prototyping.
The whole process may seem a little intimidating to a beginner, given the magnanimity of the human body and how even a single mistake could cost a life; Nevertheless, creating bioartificial organs requires not only immaculate control over multiple cell types and components but a detailed understanding of the human body’s fundamental response to all biotic and abiotic factors.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information(NCBI) explains the process of building an artificial organ to be the same as building a nuclear reactor; the only difference is that bionic materials are used for organ generation instead of unstable nuclei. The basic draft of building an artificial organ has the 4 following steps:
1. Anatomical Blueprint:
All life on earth is just a huge aggregation of cells, the basic unit of life. Cells accumulate to form tissues, organs, and organ systems. All our organs are made of polymers of small organic and inorganic molecules which have to be infallibly chosen to make an organ that could support the human body.
Thus, the selection of an appropriate material for the designing of the organ is an extremely cardinal step. For drawing out the blueprint, scientists either use the original architecture of the organs or computer-aided design (CAD) modeling.
2. Preparation of Materials:
During the process of building a synthetic organ various kinds of materials; such as different types of cells and tissues are used which generally interact differently with different growth factors. In order to reduce the chances of auto-immune rejection by the patient’s body, cells from the individual patient are preferred.
Commonly used base materials are adipose-derived stem cells (ADSCs), bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells, and umbilical cord blood stem cells. Growth factors such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) are also used extensively.
3. Tissue Assemblage:
Stem cell engagement and coordinated functioning is essential for the multi-tissue formation, maturation, and differentiation concerning the cell resources that are present in the human body. The devised organ needs to be maneuvered to fit the functional capacity of the patient.
4. Post-Maturation Trials:
Once the organ has been synthesized successfully; it needs to be equipped with crucial components like the vascular, neural, and lymphatic network which would help it in performing the whole spectrum of bodily functions.
Only after being approved through successfully conducted clinical trials, the organs are then implanted. Companies such as Medtronic (an American medical equipment company), Boston Scientific (a USA-based biotech engineering firm), and Zimmer Biomet are the leading manufacturers of artificial organ replacements.
Apart from the basic method; scientists also use some hybrid methods to create organs for human use. Two significant methodologies are- (a) Nurturing Human Organs in Xenogeneic Animals like Pigs – In this process, human stem cells are injected into xenogeneic animal fetuses before their immune system becomes functional and while the fetus develops, the human stem cell differentiates into organs which can be later on extracted. (b) Nurture Human Organ Bud in Patient’s Body- In this particular technique, the human organ bud (callus of human tissue which would differentiate into the organ) is developed and transplanted into the patient’s body for further growth.
Mind-Blowing Achievements to Date
Though, making livers and kidneys in medical factories is itself an exemplary task; listed below are some of the mindboggling inventions in the field of bioartificial organ manufacturing that you must see:
1) Cotton Candy Blood Vessels
– Artificial blood vessels are made using cotton candy-like molds which are then dissolved to leave behind the furnished vessel with the desired crevices.
2) Hemodialyzer in Your Body
– A medical firm in the States is working on using silicon nanotechnology for making a hemodialyzer that would be as compact as a coffee machine and could fit inside the human abdominal cavity.
Their idea is to coordinate the working of the machine with the patient’s pulse count. This could be a blessing for the 2 million people who have to spend 21hrs weekly in a hospital bed getting their blood cleaned.
3) Wearable Skin
– MIT scientists have developed a wearable second skin that can make your skin look flawless within seconds.it is a silicon polymer that mimics the human skin in texture while providing hydration, and UV protection and even reshapes your eye bags. This skin could be a permanent cure for patients suffering from eczema and dermatitis.
4) Plastic Heart
– ETH Zurich researchers have been able to develop a silicon heart that resembles the human heart with one additional chamber which acts as the heart’s muscles.
Though the heart is currently able to pump blood for just half an hour; research is being conducted to deliver a functional heart at the earliest.
Plague of the Plan
The current rise in chronic organ failures has hiked the need for organ transplants. With no apparent increase in the number of organ donors, it has become very necessary to devise new ways to tackle the issue.
Though artificial organ substitution is the best solution we have at present; there are numerous complications strapped to it. Some of the acute challenges have been discussed below:
1)Inadequacy of Cellular Resource Supply:
The basis of any organ creation is the cell type used. Cells from the patient’s body(autologous cells) are mostly favored as they are more metabolically active and are less likely to be rejected post-transplant.
However, they are very difficult to extract in sufficient amounts. Due to their shortage, scientists have to resort to cells from other humans or patients (allogenic cells) or various other sources like those of animal origin (xenogeneic). These are good alternatives for some transplants like skin replacements but increase the risk of viral infections and immune rejection.
2) Stem Cells and their Latent Complications
Stem cells are pluripotent and can differentiate into all kinds of cells present in the body. They can also expand without limitation. Though stem cells are no doubt, a boon for the bioengineers, they also carry some snag with them.
The stem cells that are extracted from a fertilized egg would be allogenic for the patient who would receive it and thus become a potential immune response generator. One of the ways to surpass this immune response would be to directly plant the desired somatic nucleus into an enucleated egg and then conduct fertilization as the zygote(fertilize egg) would consider the planted nucleus as its own. But this technology is dicey as we cannot deny the risk of the exploitative production of human clones.
3) Inefficiency of the Oxygen Supply Chain
Another grave issue of organ transplant substitutes is the vascularization that is essential to supply oxygen and nutrients to the newly build cells of the organ. It is nearly impossible to expect proper vascularization throughout the organ in the case of in vitro organ engineering.
This leaves us with only one option- bio-catalyst-induced vascularization. Such procedures are not only time-consuming but also require expensive hefty machinery.
4) Delivery of Growth Factors
One of the prime questions faced by genetic engineers is- How to deliver growth factors to the site of action? As we know, oral injection is not an effective means for doing so, as the injected components get dissipated on the way and seldom reach the auction site.
Techniques such as integrating the protein along with the carrier molecule and using gene technology to embed the DNA plasmid with the desired growth factor are being used popularly.
The Fate of Artificial Organs
It can be said without a hint of hesitation that being able to run a human body supported by organs that it was not born with; is a reality now. The rigorous research in the field has led to a common belief that very soon, we will be able to have a prominent breakthrough in the discipline. It is estimated that such innovations could escalate human evolution by 70-80 years.
Organ failure has become a bitter issue in recent times, especially with the youth indulging in unhealthy practices due to very many reasons. The deteriorating climatic conditions have only worsened the health parameters and taken a great toll on the life expectancy of living beings.
In this time of need, if one can replace a nature-made organ with a man-made sustainable machine; it would be a boon to the human race. To know more about the gait of human evolution
Synthetic Organs As Our Superpowers
Shortly, we may be able to regard artificial organ technologies not only as a solution to acute organ failure but also as a means to impart special capabilities to man. It is very much possible that devised machines will not only replace natural organs but also become a support system for functional organs and make them more efficient and better suited for evolution.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
Unlike present times wherein machines are used for curing diseased people, the future would see machines and artificial devices preventing those diseases beforehand. Instead of artificial hearts to help cardiac patients who have undergone myocardial infarction; scientists are now inclined towards creating machines that will prevent such cardiac arrests in the first place.
Artificial Organs to Our Rescue
With committed research being conducted, it won’t be wrong to predict that we might soon be making artificial lungs and intestines in small clinical labs rather than huge pharmaceutical inventories. We might be able to give people affordable and accessible organ transplants in about a century.
There are numerous forks on this path of innovation; one of them being the possibility that future humans might be getting “organs-on-chips”.Such research programs are actively indulged in making alternatives of human organs on a chip that is as small as your fingertip.
It is also formulated that we might be able to produce fully functional 3-D printed artificial organs on a large scale soon. Researches conducted in various laboratories around the world show a positive response to the idea and also claims it to be one of the most astounding techniques of the century.
Organs With intelligence
ChatGPT is a name that almost every tech user has heard of. With AI becoming a part of our usual day-to-day chores, it won’t be much of a surprise if we can create organs with a mind of their own.
Artificial organs with inbuilt AI are the need of the hour and are being worked upon. 20 years down the line we might have synthetic eyes which could go into power-saving mode when you sleep and could also give you the experience of augmented reality.
With Great Powers, Come Great Responsibilities
As Uncle Ben rightly said “With great powers, come great responsibilities”; the science society is also going to face the severe challenge of greedy exploitation of this novel technology.
We need to be well-versed and completely prepared to forfeit the human population from any such mishaps. As much as this technology holds the power to give life to a dying person; it also comes with the risk of landing in the wrong hands and leading to dire consequences.
Wrapping it Up…
The future world is going to witness some of the greatest inventions made in human history; out of which, those made in the medical field are going to shape how we lead our life 10-15 years from now.
Given the immaculate scope of research and betterment in the niche, the role of artificial organs is not ceasing anywhere soon. Though there are a number of issues related to the study right now, the concerned authorities are in a cutting-edge race in order to provide the best economical solution.
Just like Alan Kay said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”; scientists are already on their way to mould our future for the better.