At some point, 20 to 30 years from now, advances across the board in medical engineering will lead to artificial organs that are better, safer and more reliable in every respect than those you can grow (or regrow, with the help of regenerative medicine) youself. Blood, immune systems, bones, muscle, kidneys and so on - everything is open to improvement. Just as the room-sized computers of the 1960s have given way to handheld devices vastly more powerful and reliable at a fraction of the cost, so too will today's cutting-edge (but still large and cranky) life-support devices give way to low-cost artificial organs inside you - organs which will fail far less often than their organic counterparts.
It will be interesting to see how increasingly sophisticated engineering measures up against the increasing capabilities of regenerative medicine in the years ahead, but a great deal of work lies betweeen here and 2030. A couple of articles I noticed today give a hint of the progress underway, present challenges, and the progress yet to come:
Unfortunately, in many cases these metal alloys with a life time of 10-15 years may wear out within the lifetime of the patient. They also might not achieve the same fit and stability as the original tissue, and in a worst case, the host organism might reject the implant altogether. While available implants can alleviate excruciating pain and allow patients to live more active lives, there often are problems getting bone to attach to the metal devices. Small gaps between natural bone and the implant can increase over time, requiring the need for additional surgery to replace the implant. In the quest to make bone, joint and tooth implants almost as good as nature's own version, scientists are turning to nanotechnology.
Rather than just experimenting by trial and error, scientists are aiming to intelligently design implant surfaces to control protein interactions important for subsequent cell adhesion that may provide answers to those problems which have plagued current orthopedic implants.
The devil is in the detail, and you have to start with the basics. If you want to integrate compact new biotechnology into the body, replacing damaged or aging organs with machinery that will eventually function far more efficiently than the original, you have to ensure that the interface between the two sides is far better than was possible in the past.
The phrase ‘engineers make a difference’ is used in virtually every branch of engineering, and no doubt the structural, civil, chemical and other engineers would all argue that they make the biggest difference of all. But there is one branch of engineering that has a direct affect on our lives that the other disciplines cannot. Biomedical engineering helps to relieve pain, repair damage, improve the quality of life, deliver faster, non-invasive diagnoses - and more.
Regardless of the branch of biomedical engineering, one of the biggest challenges is the patient interface. Colin Hunsley explains: “For a routine hip replacement, the surgeon will select modular components to build up a joint that will suit the patient. However, for some reconstructive surgery there may be a requirement to use rapid prototyping technologies to create prosthetics that are unique to the patient. We also have to be aware of biocompatibility, as the human body can be a harsh environment for many engineering materials; and, conversely, the body will reject most materials. Various surface treatments have been developed to help overcome this, but the latest developments seek to go beyond a material or device being merely tolerated by the body; rather the aim now is to create something that will function with the human body as well as - if not better than - what it replaces.”
In the future, everyone who cares to look after themselves will be a little bit cyborg. It'll be simple common sense. Why settle for a cranky old natural human immune system when you can buy one far better and more durable? Why stick with version 1.0 kidneys when the hybrid bioartificial models filter out chemical byproducts of metabolism that accumulate to damage your body in old age? The decades ahead are golden - well worth sticking around to see.
Technorati tags: medical engineering