There’s a slew of smartphone apps to help you change your body: fitness trackers, tailored workout regimes, and diet apps, all aiming to change your body and health the old-fashioned way. But soon, it will be simple to grow and graft on new body parts.
Tailored, lab-grown body parts will make an enormous difference to necessary – and not-so-neccesary – surgery. How long would you want to live if you knew heart attacks were no longer a threat? How far would you go to get the body you want?
Joe Sparrow looks at the astonishing technology that exists right now – and adds a few new organs to his shopping list...
A living beefburger
Growing a beef burger is, apparently, a tough enough challenge. As we discovered previously, the cost of producing a single palatable lab-grown burger was hovering around the $300,000 mark until a couple of years ago, yet investment in the cultured edible meat industry has been in the hundreds of millions.
The reason these astronomical sums are involved is because we humans are playing catch-up, and time is money, baby: nature’s had a few billion years head-start and it’s still much easier to grow real meat the old fashioned way.
Impossible Food's "real" burger - made from plants.
Most people are eager to accept meat grown in giant petri dishes. But what about living, twitching, bleeding body parts?
We’re getting there, though - expect your sausages to be cruelty-free and just as delicious within a decade or so. Maybe they’ll be genetically altered to be good for you too.
The advantage of humans playing god, the argument goes, is that we can have our beefcake and eat it: all the advantages of meat (taste, nutrition), with none of the disadvantages (mass slaughter of animals, clogged arteries). Most people are eager to accept meat grown in giant petri dishes.
But what about living, twitching, bleeding body parts?
Be Your Own Butcher
If it’s incredibly complex and staggeringly expensive to produce a quarter of a pound of minced cow, you’d be forgiven for thinking we must be a lifetime away from growing living body parts. But you’d be very wrong, because people are already walking around with real, living body parts that they weren’t born with.
And by the end of this article you might not be so sure how long your “lifetime” is going to be any more, either. We’re entering a world where now-standard operations will seem like butchery, where disease is cured with 3D-printed organs, and where a trip to the operating theatre is more akin to a mechanic changing the tyres on your car.
This writer remembers with puce-tinged vividness a junior school trip to a museum whose guide took great delight in explaining exactly how barbarous operations were in early Victorian times.
The 10 year olds crowding round the display case supplied “urrrghs” and nervous laughter on cue, as lovingly gory descriptions of how the array of saws and chopping devices were used in pre-anaesthetic times were given.
A skull saw from the mid-19th Century from Vital Signs
And one day soon, schoolchildren will gather around a museum exhibit demonstrating the early 21st century hospital and laugh at how archaic it seems: Amputation! Rushed organ transplants from dead people – or “donors” as they were called! Skin grafts! “Cures” for cancer that involved radiation poisoning! No wonder no-one even reached 100 in those days…
The reason it won’t make any sense to them is they will be right: all these operations and treatments are barbarous, when compared to what’s about to happen. Get ready to enter a time when your diseased or damaged or worn body parts are simply re-grown and swapped.
Bring Your Own Bodyparts
Maybe the immediate image of “grown” human body parts is the famous ear-on-a-mouse which was such a striking image - it’s an ear… on a mouse! - that it became early internet meme.
But while the sight of a mouse with a human ear attached fuelled some precious, precious Internet Outrage over the perils of genetic engineering (despite the ear-on-a-mouse not being genetically engineered at all) today’s technology has moved a long way since then.
As is often the case with step-changes in technology, it’s actually a number of technologies maturing at once that has made the idea of growing duplicate organs possible.
No more donor rejection. Perfect copies, and as many as you need.
3D scanning, computer modelling, 3D printing, biodegradable plastics, advances in micro-engineering, and tissue-growth tech: all these individual areas of expertise must be corralled and made to fulfil very specific roles in very specific laboratory conditions. And then out pops a kidney, or something.
While the idea of creating new organs from scratch is perhaps mind-boggling enough, what’s also really important to this new science is that these are personalised body parts. No more donor rejection. Perfect copies, and as many as you need.
Let’s say you have part of your jaw removed to save your life from cancer: using 3D-scanning, you could copy and print out piece that matches the part removed, have a new healthy piece grown around this scaffolding and implanted later. It’d be an exact fit - genetically and physiologically – so your face would look exactly the same as before the operation.
Then one day, you’ll be able to have the jaw grown quickly in advance, so surgeons would just cut the old one out, and pop in the new. And one day behind that, the new jawbone will be 3D-printed right into your face during the operation.
And that’s when the huge compromises of the present that accompany these operations – being forced to choose pain and disfigurement over health – will vanish.
Start saving now: lab-grown organs are here
If you’re wondering about a reasonable time-frame to a time when we can expect this to start changing our lives - how about right now? Because there are already a number of women with lab-grown vaginas. It sounds like the set-up to a misogynistic joke (and, let’s face it, it most likely is), but this pioneering operation has transformed the lives of a number of women born without fully-formed vulvas.
The new vaginas were grown in a method that is pretty much a template for creating all lab-grown organs. Cells are removed from the subject, which are then cultured and grown around an artificial scaffolding created from a scan of the patient.
Once grown, it’s then implanted into the women - and remarkably, it seems to just… work. The women report that their lives are much improved, that they can enjoy sex as “normal”, and can quite possibly have children as normal, too.
If anything, it’s remarkable that we’re not forming disorderly queues to be next in line to have a new body part grown and slotted into place.
Beat, your greens
What’s interesting is that, as this technology develops, it becomes clear that we humans aren’t simply tricking nature or finding loopholes: we’re actually becoming more in tune with it, in really remarkable ways.
While 3D printing of frameworks for organs to grow on seems to solve most problems - it’s great for growing cartilage onto, for instance – it doesn’t solve them all. Creating replacement hearts has proven especially difficult (like, duh!), due to the nature of the network of blood-delivering arteries in developing heart organs.
So when, over a healthy lunch, scientists noticed that the spinach in their salad looked a bit familiar, so they stripped away the green matter and grew flesh over what was left. And it worked. Blood flowed down the passageways that were used in the leaf’s structure, and was delivered to the developing heart tissue in exactly the way it needed.
We’ve entered a world where idle, fleshy, shower-thoughts can be made to work. So what do you want to grow next?
Be still, my beating hearts
When you can grow anything in a lab, lots of established medical practices change very fast. These new body parts won't just save lives on an individual scale - it'll super-charge medicinal research and change our approach to what our bodies do.
When you can make whatever replacement lump of flesh you want, the future feels like a much less scary place.
It’s feasible that soon, medical experiments could be tested on real, grown, human parts instead of on animals or – occasionally disastrously – real humans. And if you can grow an unlimited number of kidneys to test on, you can develop medicine faster, better and more cheaply.
When you can make whatever replacement lump of flesh you want, the future feels like a much less scary place. In other ways, it also feels a much less certain one, especially when you raise the question of morality and what its means to be human.
A 3D-printed scaffold for a human ear, from New Atlas
It’s fairly clear that when you need a new liver, you'll have a new one created. Fine. But how many times do you grow and replace the liver of an alcohol addict who keeps on drinking after replacement? What if you could genetically modify the addict’s liver so that it would process alcohol five times more effectively than his old liver? Would he just drink more?
And that’s before you consider vanity use of this technology.
Vanity and everlasting life
What if you replaced all the parts of your body - are you still “you”? How would you know?
Consider just two of men’s most obvious hang-ups: would men with thinning rugs even hesitate to invest in a brand new scalp, bristling with a thick, luxurious and virile thatch of hair? Is it a depressing certainty that they’d enter a pathetic arms-race with their peers, having ever-larger genitals transplanted until they look like comical fleshy tripods?
Beyond vanity is the concept of, well, life itself. No more heart attacks - you just have a new one put in pre-emptively. No more cancerous organs - switch that out for one that's DNA-tweaked so that cancer won’t touch it. So when do you stop?
Assuming you can grow as many new hearts as you like, at what point would you consider no longer replacing them? When you are well into old age and have replaced more than 50% of your organs, are you now a new person by majority rule? What if you replaced all the parts of your body - are you still “you”? How would you know?
Much longer, more personalised lives await us. We now just have to decide at what point we’re no longer who we think we are.