In another article of mine on this site I go over the transplant revolution and the amazing things that are happening in the world of biotechnology to help people with organ failure live a few more quality years of life. It’s a tricky and unreliable business, however. People are living longer and terminal patients on the donor recipient list have no idea when or if they will ever get an organ. On top of this, most organ donations require that someone else dies first. Even when the donor is a living person, it carries a lot of risk and financial burden. Predictably, few people are willing to be living donors.
Scientists are making strides in the creation of cloned organs and better techniques to increase the number of viable donated organs, but we are still quite a ways away from these biological methods working well enough to solve the problem of organ demand. So why not build artificial organs? Who says that we have to replace like-with-like? Various advances in fields such as computing and materials science are now beginning to make artificial organs a more attractive possibility in the future.
Why Go Bionic?
These bionic devices potentially have some advantages over current transplants. The first and most obvious is simply the fact that you can make as many as you want, as long as you can pay for them. We make them, so there is no supply issue.
In fact, the more of them we make, the more affordable they will become.
The next advantage is that these artificial organs are made from the materials that the immune system does not respond to. There is no need to take dangerous immune suppressing drugs, which are a key cause of deaths in transplant recipients.
The third advantage is that these organs are upgradable. When a better version of the organ comes out you could change over to it, in principle. Future versions of these organs may even work better than those we were born with, although that is still decades away. Artificial organs may pave the path to our becoming more artificial than natural ourselves, merging deeply with machines as cyborg entities.
Before we can ever get there, there are still many problems to solve on a technical level. Even though we may understand very well what it is an organ does, mimicking these incredibly complex biological machines is no small feat. Over and above this, you have the problem of how to actually power the organ. It’s not desirable to have leads trailing out of the skin or to rely on an external battery. Ideally, the organ should have its own internal long-term power or use the same source of energy that the natural organ did.
Organs are also not things that work in isolation. They need to communicate with other parts of the body in the form of hormonal signals and nerve pulses. There’s surely a lot that still needs to be learned.
Today’s Best Players
Despite these challenges there are already some incredible artificial organs, some of which have helped to keep people alive who would otherwise not have made it this far. Let’s look at some of the most outstanding artificial organs that exist today.
The Super Heart
Artificial hearts have been with us for quite some time – first as giant heart bypass machines, which are nothing more than giant immobile artificial hearts. Later we had something like the Jarvik 7, which is still a large external machine, but has an internal part which replaces the heart and mimics it’s “lub-dub” pulse.
However, it turns out we may have been wrong in our approach to creating an artificial heart. Making a beating heart is a recipe for a poor mechanical design. That motion wears out parts quickly. Today it seems the best approach is to use a continuous flow pump design. This is more compact, uses less power and will last mechanically for a very long time. For most people at the age where a transplant is needed, it will probably outlast their natural lifespan. The heart itself uses impellers lubricated by the blood itself, magnetically suspended in a cylinder. There is no metal-on-metal contact, so wear is minuscule. You can read the whole fascinating story of the continuous flow heart in this article.
The fine structure of a human lung and the incredibly complex nanoscale oxygen/carbon monoxide exchange it performs is almost miraculous. Building a machine that can do the same has proven difficult. There is no implantable lung yet, but for a while now we’ve had external lung machines that can oxygenate blood using pure medical oxygen. In 2011, a new artificial lung was built which could do the same with regular air, just like your own lungs. This was a major step forward and is a proof of concept for true implantable bionic lungs in the future.
Diabetes is one of the largest health threats in the world today. Although insulin resistant type II diabetes is set to reach epidemic levels, type I remains the most life-threatening for an individual. While a Type II sufferer can often live a pretty normal life by adjusting their diet, losing weight, and taking drugs like metformin, Type I sufferers have to walk on eggshells all their lives. Since their bodies do not produce enough insulin they have to inject themselves with pig insulin in order to live. If they miscalculate how much they need, it can lead to coma and death quickly.
So it comes as a major form of hope to know that the FDA approved the first ever artificial pancreas in 2016.
This device can automatically measure blood glucose levels and then inject insulin in the right amounts – taking the guesswork out of the process. Of course, it cannot yet make insulin and is still an external system, but it is a major step in the right direction.
The Bionic Kidney
You’d think the heart was the most important organ to get right in artificial form, but kidney failure is a massive problem and there are many, many people waiting for the donation of a kidney. In 2010, the first implantable artificial kidney was announced. It is powered by the heart itself and uses various advanced filter materials such as nanoscale filters numbering in the thousands. If this kidney design proves successful, it will literally change the world and fulfill the dream of a self-contained, implantable alternative to dialysis.
We Can Rebuild Organs
Although they may be limited today, the future of artificial organs looks very bright indeed. Within the lifetime of most people reading this, we’ll see effective and permanent solutions to organ failure brought on by disease and aging. It’s going to be a wonderful ride.