Within the last couple of weeks, it was announced that a Canadian woman survived for nearly a week, without lungs. Their dramatic removal was as a result of an antibiotic-resistant infection – something we’ve discussed extensively in Exponential Investor before. This isn’t the first time humans have survived with missing viscera. Artificial hearts have been around for decades (SynCardia) and kidney dialysis is also well established (Toray Medical, Fresenius, etc).
But this trend is gathering pace. More and more bits of us can now be lopped off, chopped out or simply enhanced, using prosthetics to replicate their function.
Just before Christmas, it was announced that the first few NHS patients are getting the Argus II electronic eye, from Second Sight. The firm’s device uses a video camera, mounted on a pair of glasses. This then sends data directly to a patient’s retina, which is located at the back of the eye. The patient gets the sensation of seeing, but without light being detected in the eye. This means that formerly-blind people can finally start to “see” again – although the experience is far from being equivalent to normal vision. In this initial roll-out the condition being treated is called retinitis pigmentosa, which results in degeneration of the light-sensing cells in the retina.
Other methods to restore sight do exist, including a device called vOICe which converts light into sound. Amazingly, patients learn to reassemble this sound into a sense akin to vision. Apparently the reversing alarms on trucks then “look” like large rectangles in their visual field!
In recent decades, huge strides have been made (quite literally) in artificial limbs. The fact that Oscar Pistorius made the cut as an Olympic-class athlete shows us just how far this technology has come (see eg, Endolite). Not only do artificial limbs now permit gross movements, but recent arm and hand transplants have added dexterous movements, neurological control and neurostimulation for touch sensations. Check out Touch Bionics, for an example firm in the sector.
Firms using biological and synthetic approaches for organ replacement
This week, we’re going to take a deep dive into the techniques and technologies for enhancing our bodies. Of course, the future will bring many exciting breakthroughs. But this article is not about sci-fi – it’s all very much down to earth. We’re taking an overview of technologies that are either currently available or expected soon. We’ll be mixing it up a bit, and including both biological and synthetic organs. We’ll also cover bioengineering and regrowing your own organs.
Let’s get cracking – there’s a lot to cover…
As well as the Argus II artificial eye we discussed at the beginning of the article, you might also want to look at Optobionics. It’s a phoenix of a firm, which was pushing a solar-cell based artificial retina. That’s a clever approach, as it doesn’t require an external power source. However, a team at Stanford University have demonstrated a technology for transferring power to a similar implant, using radio waves. That’s useful – because I can’t imagine that solar cells work tolerably well in low light, and implanting a battery into such a device would be problematic.
Firms to watch: Optobionics (seemingly awaiting incorporation), Retina Implant AG, Second Sight.
Patients have survived with fully-artificial hearts, but it’s likely that the way forward is again through tissue engineering. Doris Taylor showed almost a decade ago that it’s possible to make entirely new hearts – at least for small animals. This is done by stripping all the cells from a heart (decellularisation). This leaves just a scaffold, on which new cells can be grown. That’s an important step forward, as it means the new heart won’t be rejected by the patient’s body. Heart valves can also be replaced. This follows a common trend, in which failed components of organs are often easier to replace than whole organs.
Firms to watch: Carmat, SynCardia.
The cochlear is the microphone of the human body. If it’s missing or severely damaged, you’ll only be able to sense loud, bass-heavy sounds – much as you can feel the rumble of underground trains. Fitting replacement technology is now becoming routine. You may have seen online videos of babies hearing their mother’s voice for the first time. If not, do check them out – it’s both inspiring and heartwarming.
Firms to watch: Cochlear, MED-EL, Advanced Bionics.
Please do check back later in the week, when we’ll be continuing this theme. Feedback’s best at the end of the series – but if it can’t wait, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology