Today I want to talk about three broad categories: Synthetic or engineered medical research or treatments, biological (DNA) research and procedures, and various transplants that have been performed or are being researched.
Synthetic Medical Advances:
A lot of research recently has been targeted at creating synthetic life. These are not robotic solutions (so, for these purposes at least, synthetic does not mean artificial intelligence or cyborgs) but instead largely biological entities that have been tinkered with.
For example, Kurzweilai.net reports that chemists have created cells with self-assembling, artificial membranes. Because creating truly artificial life will require both an artificial membrane and an artificial genome (which has also been created) this is an important step towards creating entirely new organisms. The best part: it seems to be easy and cheap to create these new artificial membranes, so we should see a lot of movement in this area in the near future.
Once we have entirely synthetic cells, how could we make more? No problem: Scientists have created artificial DNA. i09 reports that scientists have created XNA; a polymer much like DNA or RNA that can evolve and reproduce. The article notes that artificial DNA has been around for a decade or so, but what makes this new discovery special is that it can pass along its information and evolve in a very life-like manner. “Using a crafty genetic engineering technique called compartmentalized self-tagging (or “CST”), Pinheiro’s team designed special polymerases that could not only synthesize XNA from a DNA template, but actually copy XNA back into DNA. The result was a genetic system that allowed for the replication and propagation of genetic information.”
Discover Magazine, reporting on the same breakthrough, also focused on the implications of synthetic DNA for our understanding of life: “’They are very interesting with respect to the origin of life,’ says Jack Szostak, a Harvard biologist who studies life’s beginnings and was not involved in the study. ‘In principle, many different polymers could serve the roles of RNA and DNA in living organisms. Why then does modern biology use only RNA and DNA?’” Both articles mention the benefits of XNA: It is more robust than DNA, is less prone to environmental dangers, and they could be more effective than DNA in targeting different proteins for medical diagnostics.
With synthetic XNA and synthetic cells, what is the next step? An H+ article by Dr. Bratton and Dr. Shackleford suggests that full on synthetic life is likely. In the article, the doctors detail much of the work that has been going on for the last forty years in creating synthetic life and write that in the near future “[s]pecific applications include the creation of synthetic organisms that can: 1) efficiently produce pharmaceuticals and vaccines that are otherwise difficult and expensive to produce, 2) efficiently produce hydrocarbon biofuels (replacing oil, coal, etc.), and 3) be useful as plant feedstock in agriculture, lowering the need for increasingly expensive petroleum-based fertilizers.”
Finally, IEET posted a video from George Church, Pioneer in Synthetic Biology from Harvard and MIT, who argues that syntheticDNA could have numerous benefits, including bringing back extinct species. Additionally, synthetic biology could “prevent ecosystems from losing diversity” or create new species to make ecosystems more diverse than they ever have been.
Biological Research and Procedures:
ScienceDaily reports that scientists have discovered that printing cells onto slides using an inkjet printer disrupts the membranes of the cells enough that they can put molecules into the cells that otherwise would not fit. This allows scientists to alter biological cells more easily, and in greater numbers.
Speaking of cell printing, Discover Magazine recently ran an article about a creepy looking, but still awesome, blood vessel printing machine. The machine literally weaves “threads of human tissue” into blood vessels and can potentially be used to replace the blood vessels of dialysis patients or others whose vessels are not working as they should.
There has been a lot of interesting movement in cancer research recently too. Kurzweilai.net reports that scientists from the University of Arizona have made progress in diagnosing breast cancer; one of the “leading worldwide health concern[s.]” By scanning cells in 3D, scientists are better able to see the defects that indicate cancerous cells.
Another article from ScienceDaily, however, suggests that improved detection for cancer might be a moot discovery. Scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine have used an antibody to kill a broad range of cancer cells including breast, ovarian, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate cancers. The process seems to work by blocking a protein flag on cancer cells that usually shield it from an immune response. Once that protein is blocked, the immune system kicks in and annihilates the cancer; no matter what stage it is in. By breaking the stealth protein of cancer cells, the immune system regains its efficiency and destroys the cancer. Although it is much too early to call, this is at least a very promising step on the road to a cure.
Last, but not least, some exciting transplant procedures have been performed.
Both the BBC and (the hilariously named) boingboing.net have reported that the world’s first jaw transplant procedure was successfully performed on an 83 year old woman when her badly infected jaw was replaced with a titanium / bioceramic replica. The jaw was constructed using 3-D printers (another emerging technology) and, though the artificial jaw was about 30% heavier than a biological jaw, the “patient can easily get used to it.” Within a day, she was talking and swallowing. The jaw, once designed, took only a “few hours” to print, suggesting that widespread 3-D printing technology in hospitals could provide a quick way to replace many bone structures in the body (never mind organ printing that is still in its infancy.) The surgery itself also was much quicker than a traditional transplant; it took only four hours.
The BBC also reported on ever improving efforts to grow patients new limbs from their own cells. As the article states, there are essentially four complexities of tissue building, and three of them have been successfully implemented in humans. [Dr. Anthony Atalia] breaks tissue building into four levels of complexity.
* Flat structures, such as the skin, are the simplest to engineer as they are generally made up of just the one type of cell.
* Tubes, such as blood vessels and urethras, which have two types of cells and act as a conduit.
* Hollow non-tubular organs like the bladder and the stomach, which have more complex structures and functions.
* Solid organs, such as the kidney, heart and liver, are the most complex to engineer. They are exponentially more complex, have many different cell types, and more challenges in the blood supply.
Dr. Atalia argues that we will not likely see a hand grown in his lifetime, but I am not so sure. The doctor is only a little older than fifty, and I would not be surprised to see the kind of improvement needed to print a hand occur within the next fifty years.
Image #1 courtesy of Cytograft
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.