The Future of Medicine: The Era of Artificial Hearts

05Between artificial knees, total hip replacements, cataract surgery, hearing aids, dentures, and cochlear implants, we are a society that is fast becoming transhuman. Basically, this means we are dedicated to improving human health through substitution and augmentation of our body parts. Lately, bioprinting has begun offering solutions for replacement organs; but so far, a perfectly healthy heart, has remained elusive.

Heart disease is the number one killer in North America, comparable only to strokes, and claiming nearly 600,000 lives every year in the US and 70,000 in Canada. But radical new medical technology may soon change that. There have been over 1,000 artificial heart transplant surgeries carried out in humans over the last 35 years, and over 11,000 more heart surgeries where valve pumps were installed have also been performed.

artificial-heart-abiocor-implantingAnd earlier this month, a major step was taken when the French company Carmat implanted a permanent artificial heart in a patient. This was the second time in history that this company performed a total artificial heart implant, the first time being back in December when they performed the implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought. This was a major development for two reasons.

For one, robotic organs are still limited to acting as a temporary bridge to buy patients precious time until a suitable biological heart becomes available. Second, transplanted biological hearts, while often successful, are very difficult to come by due to a shortage of suitable organs. Over 100,000 people around the world at any given time are waiting for a heart and there simply are not enough healthy hearts available for the thousands who need them.

carmat_heartThis shortage has prompted numerous medical companies to begin looking into the development of artificial hearts, where the creation of a successful and permanent robotic heart could generate billions of dollars and help revolutionize medicine and health care. Far from being a stopgap or temporary measure, these new hearts would be designed to last many years, maybe someday extending patients lives indefinitely.

Carmat – led by co-founder and heart transplant specialist Dr. Alain Carpentier – spent 25 years developing the heart. The device weighs three times that of an average human heart, is made of soft “biomaterials,” and operates off a five-year lithium battery. The key difference between Carmat’s heart and past efforts is that Carmat’s is self-regulating, and actively seeks to mimic the real human heart, via an array of sophisticated sensors.

carmat-artificial-heartUnfortunately, the patient who received the first Carmat heart died prematurely only a few months after its installation. Early indications showed that there was a short circuit in the device, but Carmat is still investigating the details of the death. On September 5th, however, another patient in France received the Carmat heart, and according to French Minister Marisol Touraine the “intervention confirms that heart transplant procedures are entering a new era.”

More than just pumping blood, future artificial hearts are expected to bring numerous other advantages with them. Futurists and developers predict they will have computer chips and wi-fi capacity built into them, and people could be able to control their hearts with smart phones, tuning down its pumping capacity when they want to sleep, or tuning it up when they want to run marathons.

carmat_heart1The benefits are certainly apparent in this. With people able to tailor their own heart rates, they could control their stress reaction (thus eliminating the need for Xanax and beta blockers) and increase the rate of blood flow to ensure maximum physical performance. Future artificial hearts may also replace the need for some doctor visits and physicals, since it will be able to monitor health and vitals and relay that information to a database or device.

In fact, much of the wearable medical tech that is in vogue right now will likely become obsolete once the artificial heart arrives in its perfected form. Naturally, health experts would find this problematic, since our hearts respond to our surroundings for a reason, and such stimuli could very well have  unintended consequences. People tampering with their own heart rate could certainly do so irresponsibly, and end up causing damage other parts of their body.

carmat_heart2One major downside of artificial hearts is their exposure to being hacked thanks to their Wi-Fi capability. If organized criminals, an authoritarian government, or malignant hackers were dedicated enough, they could cause targeted heart failure. Viruses could also be sent into the heart’s software, or the password to the app controlling your heart could be stolen and misused.

Naturally, there are also some critics who worry that, beyond the efficacy of the device itself, an artificial heart is too large a step towards becoming a cyborg. This is certainly true when it comes to all artificial replacements, such as limbs and biomedical implants, technology which is already available. Whenever a new device or technique is revealed, the specter of “cyborgs” is raised with uncomfortable implications.

transhuman3However, the benefit of an artificial heart is that it will be hidden inside the body, and it will soon be better than the real thing. And given that it could mean the difference between life and death, there are likely to be millions of people who will want one and are even willing to electively line up for one once they become available. The biggest dilemma with the heart will probably be affordability.

Currently, the Carmat heart costs about $200,000. However, this is to be expected when a new technology is still in its early development phase. In a few years time, when the technology becomes more widely available, it will likely drop in price to the point that they become much more affordable. And in time, it will be joined by other biotechnological replacements that, while artificial, are an undeniably improvement on the real thing.

The era of the Transhumanism looms!


Immortality Inc: Google’s Kurzweil Talks Life Extension

calico-header-640x353Human life expectancy has been gradually getting longer and longer over the past century, keeping pace with advances made in health and medical technologies. And in the next 20 years, as the pace of technological change accelerates significantly, we can expect life-expectancy to undergo a similarly accelerated increase. So its only natural that one of the worlds biggest tech giants (Google) would decide to becoming invested in the business of post-mortality.

As part of this initiative, Google has been seeking to build a computer that can think like a human brain. They even hired renowed futurist and AI expert Ray Kurzweil last year to act as the director of engineering on this project. Speaking at Google’s I/O conference late last month, he detailed his prediction that our ability to improve human health is beginning to move up an “exponential” growth curve, similar to the law of accelerating returns that governs the information technology and communications sectors today.

raykurzweilThe capacity to sequence DNA, which is dropping rapidly in cost and ease, is the most obvious example. At one time, it took about seven years to sequence 1% of the first human genome. But now, it can be done in a matter of hours. And thanks to initiatives like the Human Genome Project and ENCODE, we have not only successfully mapped every inch of the human genome, we’ve also identified the function of every gene within.

But as Kurzweil said in the course of his presentation – entitled “Biologically Inspired Models of Intelligence” – simply reading DNA is only the beginning:

Our ability to reprogram this outdated software is growing exponentially. Somewhere between that 10- and 20-year mark, we’ll see see significant differences in life expectancy–not just infant life expectancy, but your remaining life expectancy. The models that are used by life insurance companies sort of continue the linear progress we’ve made before health and medicine was an information technology… This is going to go into high gear.

immortality_dnaKurzweil cited several examples of our increasing ability to “reprogram this outdated data” – technologies like RNA interference that can turn genes on and off, or doctors’ ability to now add a missing gene to patients with a terminal disease called pulmonary hypertension. He cited the case of a girl whose life was threatened by a damaged wind pipe, who had a new pipe designed and 3-D printed for her using her own stem cells.

In other countries, he notes, heart attack survivors who have lasting heart damage can now get a rejuvenated heart from reprogrammed stem cells. And while this procedure awaits approval from the FDA in the US, it has already been demonstrated to be both safe and effective. Beyond tweaking human biology through DNA/RNA reprogramming, there are also countless initiatives aimed at creating biomonitoring patches that will improve the functionality and longevity of human organs.

avatar_imageAnd in addition to building computer brains, Google itself is also in the business of extending human life. This project, called Calico, hopes to slow the process of natural aging, a related though different goal than extending life expectancy with treatment for disease. Though of course, the term “immortality” is perhaps a bit of misnomer, hence why it is amended with the word “clinical”. While the natural effects of aging are something that can be addressed, there will still be countless ways to die.

As Kurzweil himself put it:

Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow. Of course, we’re working on that here at Google also, with self-driving cars.

Good one, Kurzweil! Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who question the validity of these assertions, and challenge the notion of clinical immortality on ethical grounds. After all, our planet currently plays host to some 7 billion people, and another 2 to 3 billion are expected to be added before we reach the halfway mark of this century. And with cures for diseases like HIV and cancer already showing promise, we may already be looking at a severe drop in mortality in the coming decades.

calico1Combined with an extension in life-expectancy, who knows how this will effect life and society as we know it? But one thing is for certain: the study of life has become tantamount to a study of information. And much like computational technology, this information can be manipulated, resulting in greater performance and returns. So at this point, regardless of whether or not it should be done, it’s an almost foregone conclusion that it will be done.

After all? While very few people would dare to live forever, there is virtually no one who wouldn’t want to live a little longer. And in the meantime, if you’ve got the time and feel like some “light veiwing”, be sure to check out Kurzweil’s full Google I/O 2014 speech in which he addresses the topics of computing, artificial intelligence, biology and clinical immortality:


The Future is Here: Weight-Controlling Implants

genetic_circuitObesity is one of the greatest epidemics effecting children in the developed world, resulting in billions spent annually on fad diets, miracle foods, and exercise programs. But researchers ETH-Zurich have come up with a potential high-tech solution to the problem. It consists of an implant that monitors fat in the blood and, in response to elevated levels, it produces a substance that tells the body that it’s not hungry.

The method relies on a “genetic circuit”, a component that perform logical operations in living cells. Originally developed by Boston University biomedical engineers Ahmad S. Khalil and James J. Collins, the regulatory circuit is put together using mostly biological components. These consisted of several genes that generate particular proteins and reactions. This compound was inserted into tiny capsules.

weight_control_implantThe circuit essentially performs two functions: monitoring the circulating fat levels in the blood, and then, in the event of detecting excess levels, produces a messenger substance that conveys a cognitive response that tells the user they are full and sated. For the sake of the experiment, the mice were continually given high-fat foods. As ETH-Zurich professor Martin Fussenegger explained in a statement:

Instead of placing the mice on a diet to achieve weight loss, we kept giving the animals as much high-calorie food as they could eat.

The implants responded as expected, causing the obese mice to stop their excessive eating, and their bodyweight dropped noticeably as a result. Once their blood-fat levels returned to normal, the implant stopped producing the fullness signal. As for the control group, mice that received normal animal feed with a 5% fat content did not lose any weight or reduce their intake of food.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Interestingly, the sensor can also detect different types of fat, including saturated and unsaturated animal and vegetable fats — even when they’re all ingested at the same time. This allows people to continue to take in the kinds of fats their bodies depend upon – such as Omega fatty acids and unsaturated fats – while limiting their intake of saturated fat, something we as a society get far too much of.

But of course, there are challenges in adapting this technology for human used. The researchers caution that it will take several more years to develop an implant that do the same job for the human body. But given the exponential rate of development with medical and health-monitoring implants, we can expect to be seeing a full range of weight-control or even diet-specific and allergen-detecting implants before long.

genetic_circuit_MITIn addition to weight loss, this and other breakthroughs like it could facilitate the development of artificial cells designed to solve problems in medicine, energy, and the environment. It’s also a major step towards an age where people are able to manipulate their own biochemistry, and the building blocks of nature, at a microscopic level. Another step forward towards the nanotechnological revolution!

Sources:, (2)

Patenting Genes: New Questions over Property Rights

People walk in front of the Supreme Court building in WashingtonToday, in Washington DC, the US Supreme Court heard arguments made for and against the belief that the human genome can be claimed as intellectual property. For almost thirty years now, US authorities have been awarding patents on genes to universities and medical companies. But given the recent publication of the human genome, this practice could have far reaching consequences for human rights.

Ever since USC researchers published ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project – scientists and law-makers have been scrambling to determine what the next step in human genetics research will be. In addition to using the complete catalog of genetic information for the sake of bioresearch, medicine and programmable DNA structures, there are also legal issues that go back decades.

encodeFor example, if companies have the right to patent genes, what does that say about the human body? Do property rights extend to our mitochondrial DNA, or do the rights over a particular gene belong to those who discovered it, mapped its functions, or those who just plain planted their flag in it first? One of the most interesting aspects of the 21st century may be the extension of property wars and legal battles down to the cellular level…

Currently, researchers and private companies work to isolate genes in order to use them in tests for gene-related illnesses, and in emerging gene therapies. According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome, but that is expected to increase in the coming years, accounting for greater and greater swaths of human and other living creature’s DNA.Genes1This particular lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with the Public Patent Foundation, relates to seven specific patents that were made on two human genes held by US firm Myriad Genetics. These genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, and Myriad has developed a test to look for mutations in these genes that may increase the risk of developing cancer.

The company argued that the genes patented were “isolated” by them, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable. But of course, The ACLU rejected this argument, saying that genes are products of nature, and therefore can’t be patented under US or any other man-made law.

genesWithout a doubt, there concerns are grounded in what this could mean for future generations, if people themselves could be subject to patents simply because they carry the gene that a company holds the patent on. And who can blame them? With almost half of the stuff that makes our bodies tick belonging to private companies, how big of a stretch would it be for companies to effectively own a human being?

Alternately, if companies are not allowed to patent genes, what will this mean for medical and bio research? Will cures, treatments, and medical processes become a complete free for all, with no one holding any particular distribution rights or having their exclusive work recognized. And of course, this would have the effect of hurting a research or corporate firms bottom line. So you can expect them to have something to say about it!

It’s a new age, people, with patents and prospecting extending not only into space (with asteroids), but into the human genome as well. Predictable I suppose. As humanity began expanding its field of view, focusing on wider and more distant fields, as well as gaining a more penetrating and deeper understanding of how everything works, it was only a matter of time before we started squabbling over territory and boundaries again!


Scientists Raise the Alarm on Human Enhancements

enhancementThe concept of technological progress and its potential consequences has been the subject of quite a bit of attention lately. First, there was the announcement  from Harvard University and Human Rights Watch that a ban on killer robots was needed before the current pace of innovation led to the machines that could so without human oversight.

Then came the University of Cambridge’s announcement about the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies. And last, there was the news the news that the DOD had signing a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.

bionic_handConcordantly, back in early November, the Royal Society along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded a workshop called “Human Enhancement and the Future of Work” in which they considered the growing impact and potential risks of augmentation technologies. In their final report, they raised serious concerns about the burgeoning trend and how humanity is moving from a model of therapy to one in which human capacities are greatly improved. The implications, they concluded, should be part of a much wider public discussion.

Specifically, the report raised concerns on drugs and digital enhancements that will allow people to work longer, hard and faster. Such technologies could easily give rise to a culture of enhanced competitiveness, more than we currently know, where the latest in cybernetics, bionics and biomedical devices are used to gain and edge, not to remedy medical problems. Currently, things like bionic prosthesis are being created to aid amputees and injury victims; but as the technology improves and such devices become more effective than organic limbs, the purpose could change.

cyberpunk-eyeWhat’s more, there are the ethical implications of having such technology available to human beings. If people can upgrade their bodies to enhance their natural abilities, what will it means for those who get “left behind”? Will the already enormous gulf between the rich and poor expand even further and take on a new dimension? Will those who want to succeed in the business world be forced to scrounge so they can get the latest upgrades.

Or, as the panel’s final report put it:

“Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.”

At the same time however, they acknowledge the potential efficacy and demand for such technologies, prompting the call for open discourse. Again, from the report:

“Although enhancement technologies might bring opportunities, they also raise several health, safety, ethical, social and political challenges, which warrant proactive discussion. Very different regulatory regimes are currently applied: for example, digital services and devices (with significant cognitive enhancing effects) attract less, if any, regulatory oversight than pharmacological interventions. This raises significant questions, such as whether any form of self-regulation would be appropriate and whether there are circumstances where enhancements should be encouraged or even mandatory, particularly where work involves responsibility for the safety of others (e.g. bus drivers or airline pilots).”

In many ways, this report is overdue, as it is offering some rather obvious commentary on a subject which has been the subject of speculation and fiction for some time. For example, in the Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson explored the idea of human enhancement and the disparity between rich and poor at length. In his world, the rich were ensured clinical immortality through AI and biotech while everyone else was forced to spend their savings just to afford the latest tech, merely so they could stay in the running.

However, just about all of the panel’s recommendations were most appropriate. They included further investigations into ensuring safety, affordability, and accessibility, not to mention that some of these enhancement technologies —  be they pharmaceutical, regenerative medicines, or cybernetics — should be regulated by the government. This last article is especially appropriate given the potential for personal misuse, not to mention the potential exploitation by employers.

With all the harm that could result from having technologies that could render human beings “postmortal” or “posthuman”, some degree of oversight is certainly necessary. But of course, the real key is a public educated and informed on the issue of cybernetics, bionics, and human enhancement, and what they could mean for us. As with so much else, the issue is one of choice, and awareness of what the consequences could be. Choose wisely, that’s the only guarantee! Hey, that rhymed… I smell a quote!