First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1 (7-11-2016)
Being human means our bodies, tissues and organs, will eventually deteriorate and malfunction. However, advances in medical science mean we can replace aging or diseased hips, knees, even hearts with advanced man-made materials. Many of our bodies, in this way, have become partly artificial or synthetic.
Advances in medical science and engineering mean that a lot more of us, in the developed western world at least, are set to have all manner of misfiring tissues and organs, maybe even our brains, replaced by something synthetic, better, and perhaps an awful lot better. The age of truly bionic man and woman is upon us.
The replacement of body parts with something man-made – what we now call bionics – is something that goes back a long way in human history.
Back as far as 1,500 BC there is a report of an Ancient egyptian mummy having its toe amputated and replaced by a prosthetic made of wood and leather. This was done apparently because the Egyptians felt that amputees would be cursed in life as well as the afterlife.
During the middle ages, crude prosthetic limbs ere available, but only to the very wealthy. These were made of wood, leather and metal, and the replacement leg would resemble a peg leg, with a hook replacing a hand.
Towards the end of the 18th century, in about 1897 the scientist Alessandro Volta – he of electricity fame – found that hearing could be restored by the use of electrical stimulation. This was a big advance in medical bionics.
However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that bionics entered the popular consciousness with the arrival of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman on our television screens.
The bionic man, played by Lee Majors, was human, had a bionic left eye, bionic legs, and a bionic right arm, while the Bionic Woman, played by Lindsay Wagner, had similar bionic limbs, but also had a bionic ear.
Science fiction becomes fact
What was science fiction then is now fact. A bionic eye, and ear have already been built, providing people with something even better than the original, while there have been remarkable advances in bionic limbs, including the human hand.
We could today, build a Bionic Man and Woman, with bionic ears, eyes, and limbs (not necessarily with the ability to run at 60 mph, but it could be done if felt necessary), but science is moving beyond what was speculation in the 1970s.
Neuroscientists have begun to decode the language of the brain, so that it is possible to know what word or series of words they are thinking. This is important because it means that people who are disabled, or paralysed can be now trained to move robotic limbs, or a new limb attached to their bodies.
Bionics and neuroscience is, thus, liberating disabled people from their physical dependence on people around them, and they can control their artificial limbs, or wheelchairs by simply thinking. At the same time, materials are becoming more sophisticated, and these can enhance malfunctioning biological tissues.
Bionic eyes, which pick up signals from the environment and transmit electrical impulses straight to the brain will soon help the blind ‘see’ again. A Bionic ear has been developed which restores hearing to the profoundly deaf via an implant which receives and transmits signals in the inner ear.
A bionic hand, with tremendous dexterity has been developed for a Danish man, which has been integrated by neurosurgeons with his existing nervous system. Bionic feet and legs under the thought control of the brain have been developed. A fully artificial heart has been successfully implanted, and there even moves to build an electronic implant to replace malfunctioing parts of the brain, or to construct a fully artificial brain based on the biological brain.
What this all means is that we are seeing a general trend towards humans becoming more artificial, as we live longer, and want to maintain the functioning of our limbs, organs and brain for as long as possible.
What do people want in life? They want to alive at the age of 90, but still active and healthy, physically and mentally. Bionics offers this, and its alluring.
No one knows where this all will end, or how artificial we will eventually become. Some believe that the trend towards having more and more bionic body parts threatens our humanity. How far can we go towards becoming artificial before we stop being human? It is a huge philosophical question we’ll face in future.
The majority of the work in Ireland in this area is on the repair of body parts, through what is called regenerative medicine, rather than bionics, which involves the complete replacement of a tissue or organ, with something new and artificial.
Bionics, and regenerative medicine are moving ahead together and in parallel. It is perhaps a bit like the car industry.
There will always be a market for a brand new cars. Some people will buy a new car because they can afford it, and they want the latest technology and performance capabilities.
Others might want a new car because they have crashed their old one, and is beyond repair. However, there are also people who do not feel the need for a new car, and are quite happy to have their old car service, fixed, and on the road for as long as possible.
Ireland, in this sense, is more in the service and repair market, than the new car sales market, but both are equally important areas.
In terms of bionics, researchers in the University of Limerick, led by Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, along with an industrial partner, MTD Precision Engineering (Cork) are aiming to develop a full body Bionic Suit to help the elderly.
The Axo Suit project aims to help the aging live independently and stay mobile. The suit needs to be light enough to allow them to do daily tasks, such as going for a walk, or putting clothes on the line, but strong enough to give support.
The goal is to produce an ‘exoskeleton’ or bionic suit, which will sell for between 5k and 10k. This could keep many people out of nursing homes.
AT TCD, the Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Group (AMBER) led by Professor Danny Kelly’s group is involved in developing 3D bio-printing of tissues and organs, which could negate the need for organ transplants.
It could also lead to printing of organs or tissues made up of a combination of natural and artificial components, or even totally artificial components. There has already been a successful transplant of an artificial heart, and with natural organs hard to come by, this trend is set to increase.
Also at TCD, Dr Mark Ahearne’s group are developing bioengineered corneas which can be used for cornea transplants to restore sight or relieve pain. The artificial cornea has been made by using artificial fibres that mimic the ability of natural collagen fibres in the cornea to allow light to penetrate through. The researchers believe this will help people suffering from corneal blindness.
Meanwhile, At the Regenerative Medicine Institute at NUI Galway, or REMEDI there is a clinical trial underway where stem cells are being used to tackle osteoarthritis. The idea here is to insert stem cells into, for example knee joints damaged by arthritis to facilitate the growth of new, healthy bone tissue.
The potential for knee repair is incredible. For example, Professor Fergal O’Brien, based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and AMBER, developed a new material which repaired the severely damaged knee joints of a competitive show jumping horse called Beyonce. The horse was facing euthanasia, but after the material was used, it began competitive show jumping again.
REMEDI researchers are also working with colleagues our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, to use stem cells to overcome congenital heart defects in children. In terms of organ repair, or fixing the sky is now the limit.
Is humanity threatened?
Bionics and regenerative medicine are set to help millions of people around the world who are suffering the effects of diseased or damaged tissues or organs. We are living longer, and this technology will help us live better, no doubt.
But, there are some issues, or concerns. For example, some well known scientists in the field, such as Hugh Herr at MIT, believe that synthetic materials such as titanium and silicon will one day replace flesh and blood.
Do we want that? Will this spell the end of humanity, at our own hand?
Herr got caught in a snow blizzard while climbing a mountain at the age of 17, and lost both legs to severe frostbite. Now in his 50s, he is the co-director of MIT’s Center for Extreme Bionics, where he is designing artificial legs (including his own) feet, ankles, knees and hips.
Herr’s view is that we will become more artificial, and eventually totally artificial, but that we will retain our humanity. We already have ‘augmented’ abilities, such as the ability to fly, and devices that improve our memory and ability to communicate.
Herr believes that our humanity, our ideas, our personalities, and our creativity, will become ‘embedded’ into artificial ‘designable’ bodies. We will come to see this as normal in the way, he says, and that artificial legs, or body parts will be considered part of us in the same way as biological legs are now. This is all part of the natural progression, or evolution, or humanity, Herr says.
Others disagree, and argue that as we shed our biology, we will shed our humanity, and that this technology represents an existential threat to mankind.
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