These are the opening years of the biotech century, in which scientists first develop the means to rebuild every part of the human body, and then go on to design better, more durable, and more functional versions of our bodily systems. First we'll learn how to actually maintain the human body, and then we'll learn how to improve it.
A gilded age of ever-increasing health lies ahead, but these are the early, experimental years. Here are two examples of the work undertaken by research groups at the present time, both of which are, I think, illustrative of the state of the field.
Hanley is one of a handful of researchers around the country trying to build a heart valve made of living human tissue that would grow with a child and repair itself over time. It's a remarkably complicated task that incorporates stem cell science and biomechanical engineering, and an understanding of exactly how tissues grow and function amid the constant rush of blood in a beating heart - and scientists have been stuck on it for more than a decade.
Researchers at the Bernard O'Brien Institute of Microsurgery in Melbourne, Australia are pioneering a radical new surgical procedure that would allow women to re-grow breasts after undergoing a mastectomy, a cancer treatment that removes part or all of a cancerous breast. After a decade of experiments in the laboratory as well as numerous tests on animal models, the researchers are ready to begin clinical trials to test the procedure in humans in the next few months. If all goes as planned, this treatment might become available within 3 years, providing an alternative to breast implants and reconstructive surgery for breast cancer patients.
Doctors would first implant a biodegradable scaffold that is in the shape of a breast. Next, they would introduce fat stem cells into the area and nearby blood vessels would be redirected towards the implanted stem cells in order to supply necessary nutrients. Within 6 - 8 months, the cells are expected to grow and fill the area enclosed by the scaffold, which is then broken down by the body.
Revolutions in science always seem grindingly slow while you're living through them in anticipation. But progress is taking place, faster with each passing year, as improvement builds upon improvement.