Robotic and synthetic technology will largely overcome any progress biological technologies can offer, but we are further along in the biological sciences, so we’ll likely see those advances first. Some people, seeking to “stay human” will stop with biological enhancement. Here are cool new stories in three categories: currently available cures and treatments for diseases, speculative cures and treatments for diseases, and general upgrades to the human condition.
What’s Currently Available:
First, victims of heart attacks involved in a clinical trial at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute were given an “infusion of their own heart-derived cells”, which helped “their damaged hearts regrow healthy muscle”. In short, by using a stem cell treatment, their hearts “demonstrated a significant reduction in the size of the scar left on the heart muscle by a heart attack” by 50% one year later. Importantly, this reduction in the size of scar tissue was not the result of a more efficient procedure, but instead a result of a procedure that can be applied after traditional surgeries for heart attack patients. This means that doctors ought to begin performing the treatment, if it passes further trials, right away.
A lot of people like to accuse scientists who use or invent high technology of “playing God”. In this case, maybe they’re right. Jean Bennett and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania recently published an article in the February issue of Science Translational Medicine documenting their procedure that restored sight to the blind in one eye in 6 of 12 cases! A follow-up treatment produced improvement in as little as two weeks in the other eye for three out of three women from the initial group of 6 that showed improvement. The second treatment also seemed to make the first more effective. Not too shabby for sub-deities.
Finally, last month doctors in Turkey performed the world’s first triple limb transplant (and the donor’s face is going to a different person.) Although triple-limb transplants are rare now, it seems to confirm both that we have the knowledge and technology available to perform such an invasive surgery and that the human body itself can withstand the surgery. This is promising, and suggests that people who later choose to get a limb, or two, or three replaced with biological replacement (or cybernetic prostheses) in the future will be able to withstand the surgery, even in the unlikely event that surgical procedures and technologies don’t improve significantly in the coming years.
Speculative Cures And Treatments:
Scientists from the University of Texas, Austin recently published the results of their experiment to reattach severed nerves in the Journal of Neuroscience Research. The new procedure allows doctors to repair severed nerves “within minutes.” Once the severed nerves are repaired, the behavior they control can be partially restored within days, and fully restored within weeks. According to Professor George Bittner, current procedures “imperfectly restore lost function within months at best.” Although this procedure still needs to undergo clinical trials, if successful it suggests that patients replacing limbs in the future might be able to recover from the surgery much, much more quickly.
Scientists are also making headway in the fight against cancer by reevaluating the medicinal properties of a plant; thapsia garganica. Although the plant has been used before to treat rheumatism (a group of medical problems affecting joints and connective tissues) the side effects were apparently quite bad. However, by breaking the toxic plant down to the molecular level, biotech firm Genspera has been able to direct the plant to cancer cells. Once the plant meets the cancer cells, it seems to be very effective at killing the tumor and, crucially, nothing else. One of the major problems with current cancer treatments is that they poison the entire body, killing good and bad cells alike. This could be one of the first of new, targeted medications that kill just those cells causing problems and leaving the rest of the body unaffected. The new drug is working its way through clinical trials now, and the company hopes to modify it to destroy other types of cancer as well.
In some of the biggest news of the day, however, scientists in both the UK and Australia hope to use genetic engineering techniques to combat a rare (roughly 1 in 5,000), but serious, neurodegenerative disease and muscular dystrophy in children. The diseases are caused when the mitochondria in cells are faulty. By introducing mitochondria from a third party into a fertilized egg the faulty mitochondrial DNA is replaced with healthy mitochondrial DNA and the disease is potentially cured. Along the way, however, something important happens: A human egg, which thus far has consisted of a mix of two sets of DNA (one from each parent), gains a third set of DNA (from the donor). Already scientists have performed this procedure with monkeys, but to research this potential cure in the UK, the legislature is going to have to reconsider its laws banning genetic therapy on fertilized human eggs. This, of course, has profound implications for other sorts of genetic engineering in humans, both born and unborn.
Finally, researchers at UC-Davis are working on a new stem cell treatment to help reinvigorate bones in people suffering from osteoporosis. Although the study doesn’t suggest that this process can be used to increase bone strength to superhuman levels, the research doesn’t seem to be limited to osteoporosis; the researchers hope to expand this to bone fractures, bone infections, and cancer treatments.
General Upgrades To The Human Condition:
Some more highly experimental technology is on the way. Scientists have been experimenting with mixing human skin and spider silk (which, itself, was engineered into goat’s milk.) Why mix spider silk and human skin? Spider silk is much stronger than Kevlar, which is used to make bulletproof vests. This means that by replacing some proteins in human skin, humans could have essentially bulletproof skin (which would be resistant to other impacts as well, of course.)
Also, George Dvorsky recently blogged about a Chinese boy who apparently has mutated eyes that have granted him night vision and glowing eyes like a cat. Assuming the story is true, this is apparently a natural mutation. If a mutation can occur naturally, it can also be induced. If it can be induced, that means with just a little genetic engineering, we all can have night vision eyes. And that, I have to say, is pretty cool.
John Niman is an Affiliate Scholar, a J.D. Candidate at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His primary legal interests include bioethics and personhood. He blogs about emerging technology and transhumanism at http://boydfuturist.wordpress.com.