Last week was quite the exciting time for the field of biotechnology! Thanks to improvements in 3D printing and cybernetics – the one seeking to use living cells to print organic tissues and the other seeking to merge the synthetic with the organic – the line between artificial and real is becoming blurrier all the time. And as it turns out, two more major developments were announced just last week which have blurred it even further.
The first came from Cornell University, where a team of biotech researchers demonstrated that it was possible to print a replacement ear ear using a 3D printer and an injection of living cells. Using a process the team refers to as “high-fidelity tissue engineering”, they used the cartilage from a cow for the ears interior and overlaid it with artificially generated skin cells to produce a fully-organic replacement.
This process builds on a number of breakthroughs in recent years involving 3D printers, stem cells, and the ability to create living tissue by arranging these cells in prearranged fashions. Naturally, the process is still in its infancy; but once refined, it will allow biomedical engineers to print customized ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who have lost theirs to accident or disease.
What’s more, the Cornell research team also envision a day in the near future when it’ll be possible to cultivate enough of a person’s own tissue so that the growth and implantation can happen all within the lab. And given recent the breakthrough at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine- where researchers were able to create printed cartilage – it won’t be long before all the bio-materials can be created on-site as well.
The second breakthrough, which also occurred during this past week, took place in Germany, where researchers unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device comes to us from the University of of Tübingen, where scientists have been working for some time to build and improve upon existing retinal prosthetics, such as Argus II – a retinal prosthesis developed by California-based company Second Sight.
Much like its predecessor, the Alpha IMS helps to restore vision by imitating the functions of a normal eye, where light is converted into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. In an eye that’s been afflicted by macular generation or diabetic retinophathy, these signals aren’t generated. Thus, the prosthetic works by essentially replacing the damaged piece of your retina with a computer chip that generates electrical signals that can be understood by your brain.
But of course, the Alpha IMS improves upon previous prosthetics in a number of ways. First, it is connected to your brain via 1,500 electrodes (as opposed to the Argus II’s 60 electrodes) providing unparalleled visual acuity and resolution. Second, whereas the Argus II relies on an external camera to relay data to the implant embedded in your retina, the Alpha IMS is completely self-contained. This allows users to swivel the eye around as they would a normal eye, whereas the Argus II and others like it require the user to turn their head to change their angle of sight.
Here too the technology is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it can outdo the real thing. For the most part, bionic eyes are still rely heavily on the user’s brain to make sense of the alien signals being pumped into it. However, thanks to the addition of configurable settings, patients have a degree of control over their perceived environment that most cannot begin to enjoy. So really, its not likely to be too long before these bionic implants improve upon the fleshy ones we come equipped with.
Wow, what a week! It seems that these days, one has barely has to wait at all to find that the next big thing is happening right under their very nose. I can foresee a future where people no longer fear getting into accidents, suffering burns, or losing their right eye (or left, I don’t discriminate). With the ability to regrow flesh and cartilage, and replace organic tissues with bionic ones, there may yet come a time when a human can have a close-shave with death and be entirely rebuilt.
I foresee death sports becoming a hell of a lot more popular in this future… Well, crap on me! And while we’re waiting for this future to occur, feel free to check out this animated video of the Alpha IMS being installed and how it works: