The Future of Jobs - Body Part Maker

Artificial bladder "manufactured" by dr. Tony Atala. Credit: Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University

Significant progress have been made in organs transplant since the first kidney transplants back in 1950ies (I am not giving a specific date since it depends what you consider as "first": attempt, successful as surgery, successful over 5 years...). More recently researchers have been able to create artificial body parts, like trachea (windpipe) and jaw bone and in the labs more complex organs, like a bladder, have been “manufactured”. 
There is a concrete expectation that in the next decade more and more organs could be manufactured from the recipient cells, so that there won’t be any rejection issue.

However, manufacturing organs is not like manufacturing a spare part for a car, although sometimes this is the comparison provided: you need a new liver and you get a new one off-the-shelf. The “spare” liver needs to fit your current body, technicians will need to understand exactly how you are “today” and prepare the right scaffolding onto which grow liver cells and all the vase infrastructure. This is quite a job requiring a variety of skills, including ICT skills (as you would expect, since ICT is basically everywhere).

Notice that in the time frame we are talking about, next decade and beyond, it is most likely that new organs will be manufactured including sensors, actually becoming “cyber-organs”, to monitor their working status over time.

If we dare to look further down the lane, in the 4th decade of this century, we can envisage augmented organs that will be able to improve on a natural organ functionality. What about a liver that can metabolize cholesterol so that if you have an issue with it rather than swallowing pills you let your new liver to take care of that?  It might look more science fiction than science but it is actually on the scientists and researchers radar.

Hence, new skills will be required and the new profession of body part maker will arise.

Today over a million people are in line to get a transplant worldwide, and actually many more would require one. Making organs widely available, and decreasing the cost of transplant and post transplant cure, would benefit humanity to a great extent.

Let’s not fool ourselves. The availability of manufactured organs indeed will overcome problems we are facing today but it will also open up new issues that will grow further as we will be moving into augmented organs functionality.  A person may consider a transplant not because his liver is faulty but because an augmented liver may address his cholesterol problems. This may actually put a strain on the health care system in several Countries and further aggravate economic choices with ethical implications.

The augmented organ functionality  “path” can become a branch of organ manufacturing, you may end up in having request for augmentation, independently of a transplant. This area is particularly promising/sensitive for some organs/functionality like the ones connected to our senses. We are already augmenting our senses, e.g. by using glasses and contact lenses; I, for one, have recently replaced by faulty eye lens with an artificial lens that restored my vision to the point that I no longer have to wear glasses. I guess there is nothing “wrong” or ethically arguable with that. What about an implant that augment vision by adding info that can reach my brain to identify a person, whispering, through nerve stimulation, his name, background…? It is just an example but you see the possible paths…

At IEEE we are looking into technical feasibility in this area with the Digital Senses Initiative and we are also considering its ethical implications.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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