Returning to our Deus Ex graphic, the next three categories are the torso, back, and skin. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll lump the torso and back together. The skin, however, deserves its own category.
I am construing the torso broadly here to mean the entire center region of the body, excluding the skin itself. I will also include some things that travel through the entire body, but are not specific to any particular extremity or the head.
Most of the work in the area involved replacing organs with mechanical analogues. The most comprehensive collection of these technologies was showcased by Rex just last week. Rex, an artificial humanoid, has prosthetic limbs that I’ll talk about tomorrow, but also an entire collection of artificial organs.
Rex has, for instance, a “spleen-on-a-chip” to cleanse his blood, an artificial kidney (which “packs the technology of a fridge-sized dialysis machine into a unit no bigger than a coffee cup”) and an artificial pancreas to adjust blood glucose levels.
The pancreas, for instance, encases insulin within a gel protective barrier. Designed by Professor Joan Taylor of De Montfort University in the UK, the gel responds to excess glucose by softening and releasing insulin. When the glucose levels stabilize, the gel hardens again, trapping the remaining insulin inside. Although still in trials, Professor Taylor hopes that it will be available for implantation into humans within seven years.
The kidney, designed by Professor Shuvo Roy at the University of California, San Francisco, is “made up of a silicon nanoscale filtration system” and is powered by the body’s own blood pressure. The blood passes through the filtration system to a cartridge of living renal tubule cells from a healthy donor (or, perhaps, engineered from the patient’s own cells.) Clinical trials are expected to begin in five years.
Additionally, Rex has an artificial heart and windpipe – both versions of technology that are already implanted into patients.
The SynCardia heart is designed as a holdover until a biological heart can be transplanted in, but has been operating on some patients for as long as five years.
The Guardian reports that this heart-lung combination is also connected to a “network of pulsating modified-polymer arteries.” Relevant to Part One, Rex also has cochlear implants, artificial retinas, and is at least somewhat artificially intelligent.
“Rich Walker, the managing director of Shadow, says: ‘We were surprised how many of the parts of the body can be replaced. There are some vital organs missing, like the stomach, but 60 to 70 per cent of a human has effectively been rebuilt.’
But the project does not just show what can be done for those who lose limbs or suffer organ failure. It heralds a future in which the artificial replacements are better than those we are born with.”
Yet, as cool as Rex is, there are different designs in the works that were not incorporated into him. For instance, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine is working on an artificial lung design that layers gas pathways with blood channels and then grafts on endothelial cells. No word, yet, on how close they are to a clinical trial. For now, patients must still be hooked up to a machine outside the body.
Consider also this alternative power source for pacemakers and other medical devices. If an entire replacement heart is unnecessary, or perhaps if the heart is fine but another device needs to be implanted, this device ought to be able to take the energy provided by a beating heart to power the device. These sorts of device – one that produces power from the body’s own mechanisms – helps solve the battery problem and could help power human-machine hybrids.
Yet another way implants might be powered is through wireless charging technology. WiTricity, an MIT spin-off company, has invented a method of transmitting electricity though the air via coils. If this technology is scalable, and can be integrated into implants, one might charge their implants simply by being home or at another location where these wireless electricity coils are installed.
While still extremely early in the research phase, 3-D printers are helping researchers create nanobots that will be able to travel through our bodies to defeat toxins and disease. Entire artificial immune systems seem possible, but still have a long way to come.
Other versions of the artificial pancreas are hot topics as well. IRCM, in Montreal, conducted a trial of an artificial pancreas and compared the results to traditional insulin therapy. The artificial pancreas showed “improved glucose levels and lower risks of hypoglycemia.” One downside to this particular artificial pancreas is that parts of it remain outside of the body. Other models, like this one, also depend on external mechanisms. While this may be the best we can do for now, ultimately internal artificial organs help to reduce infection and are more convenient for the patient.
It seems we will likely see more of these devices in the future as well, because pharmaceutical companies are beginning to realize the implants can work better than drugs for treating some types of disease. While I think custom medication still has a lot to offer, and will become much better at targeting just the disease without causing all sorts of collateral damage (read: side effects), it seems virtually certain that engineered solutions like nanobots will eventually overcome the capabilities of any drug.
One challenge facing an increasing use of implants is security. It turns out that it’s possible to hack them. While it’s probably true that any technology that can be created can be hacked, there is a particularly difficult trade-off when it comes to implants. Either implants should be like toasters – non-networked devices that can’t really be hacked, but also can’t be updated – or should they be like cell phones – easily updated but also fairly easily hacked? Finding the ideal solution – easily updated but not easily hacked – will be a challenge for security professionals in the coming decades.
I’m going to construe the skin somewhat broadly as well. While I’ll start with the skin proper, I’ll also include technology that deals with tissue generally.
One of the biggest news stories of the past year was the invention on spray-on skin. Products like ReCell use the patient’s own skin cells and turn them into an aerosol spray. The doctor can then spray the cells back onto the patient so that a new layer of skin can form over burns and other wounds. This sort of purely biological invention might seem out of place in a cyborg article, but imagine how much easier healing any implant that protrudes from the skin will be with this sort of technology. If a wire, sensor, or other portion of the implant can stick out from the skin, but the skin can heal in days instead of weeks or months, the risk of infection is greatly reduced. Likewise, this sort of technology seems like it could be translated to other types of cells, allowing, say, a heart implant to graft into existing blood vessels by coating it in the patient’s own heart cells. Finally, if nothing else, this sort of technology ought to help reduce scarring that would otherwise occur from invasive surgery to implant a medical device.
For some mechanical integration an implant may not be the best solution. For instance, imagine a person just wants to monitor their glucose level or blood pressure. An implant seems like overkill in this situation. Fortunately, new technology is giving people an option. Stick-on tattoos embedded with electronics could monitor these sorts of things and provide a visible readout to the user without needing to implant a device underneath the skin. In addition to being safer because they do not require invasive surgery, they ought to be much cheaper and, thus, more versatile. For short-term readouts, this technology can’t be beat.
While a whole field of wearable electronics is outside the scope of this article, it’s worth highlighting one new technology: Screens on your fingernails. Engineers in Taiwan are attempting to find a way to coat fingernails in organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) so that your nails become either screens unto themselves or extensions of other screens that they come near. If painting on a screen is as simple as painting your fingernails, we might find that these screen become more pervasive and that men suddenly care more about painting their nails. These, too, could help display internal metrics without the need for an implant proper, or they could easily display information from an implant.
On the other hand, it may be more beneficial to replace the skin entirely. If that’s right, then this touch-sensitive, self-healing plastic skin might be a good start. Admittedly, it’s not very attractive. While still very early in the research phase, this skin heals much faster than human skin and does provide touch sensitivity – something very much lacking in current prostheses, yet so very important for humans.
Still, if we’re not replacing the skin entirely, but need something more than just a stick on or paint on solution, perhaps a compromise can be found. For skin and other tissues, engineers are getting better at integrating tissue and electronics. This sort of technology allows machine and man to happily coexist. Implants can be wired up to the skin directly (perhaps providing information to those fingernail screens or other paint-on solutions) without having to find an entirely new replacement for skin itself. Devices can be grafted directly into biological organs if necessary. Harvard researcher Dr. Charles Liber says:
“We can use electrodes to measure activity in cells or tissue, but that damages them. With this technology, for the first time, we can work at the same scale as the unit of biological system without interrupting it. Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.”
The team was able to integrate electronics without disrupting tissues as well as create blood vessels with embedded networks that could monitor pH changes within the blood vessels.
According to NewScientist: “Lieber’s team also managed to grow an entire blood vessel about 1.5 centimetres long from human cells, with wires snaking through it. By recording electrical signals from inside and outside the vessel– something that was never possible before– the team was able to detect electrical patterns that they say could give clues to inflammation, whether tissue has undergone changes that make it prone to tumour formation or suggest impending heart disease.”
The next step, according to Lieber, is to try to control cells directly through these embedded networks. If this is possible, then even (mostly) organic organs can be monitored and optimized via computer. There are indications that this is possible. For instance, bioelectronic engineer Klas Tybrandt of Linkoping University in Sweden has created a chip that uses biological ions and chemicals instead of electrons. This sort of chip is ideally suited to integrate with a partially human body because it ‘speaks the same language’ as biological cells – sodium ions and acetylcholine for instance – instead of just using electricity. This sort chip is important because it could directly upgrade the human central nervous system. It could, for instance, restore mobility to paralyzed people. It might also be able to optimize flexibility and dexterity for healthy people. It could also hijack other central nervous system responses – short-circuiting a panic attack for instance – before it ever gets started.
Stay tuned next week for the third and final part where I’ll review some prosthetic limb technology for arms and legs.