Bioprinting technology is advancing so quickly that some scientists believe 3D printing an entire artificial human organ is only five to ten years off. That alone is pretty bonkers, science-wise, and could save many lives. But why stop there? Once you start talking about manufacturing body parts, the inevitable lurking question is: Can we go beyond just mimicking biology to make technologically improved humans?
At least one scientist, Ibrahim Ozbolat from the University of Iowa, believes that 3D bioprinting will pave the road to this posthuman future. "There might be some brand new organ that doesn't exist in the human body, but it can be transplanted in the human body to enhance the functionality," Ozbolat said in an interview with HuffPost Live this week.
In other words, simply replacing failed organs is thinking small. Bioprinted enhanced organs—or artificial ones that don’t exist in nature—can be engineered to perform specific, useful functions, such as treating disease.
You can bioprint "an organ that is going to be part of the human body and generate electricity that can run the heart."
Already, a 3D-printed artificial pancreas that can regulate glucose levels in diabetic patients is being developed at the University of Iowa’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Group, which Ozbolat heads up.
But “bioprinting enhanced organs is different than our pancreatic organ printing project,” Ozbolat explained in an email. “Pancreas printing is for making an artificial pancreas to regulate glucose level in blood, not targeting at something better than a natural pancreas.”
Enhanced, “superorgans” that improve upon nature could open the door to a new era of personalized medicine. Speaking to HuffPost Live, Ozbolat said bioprinting could be used to create an organ that can generate electricity in the human body. An electrogenic organ could power electronic implants, like pacemakers, without the need for batteries.
"The pacemaker runs with batteries, and when the battery needs to be replaced, surgery is needed," he said. You can prevent that by printing "an organ that is going to be part of the human body and generates electricity that can run the heart."
Whaaat. Let’s back up a sec. The gist of 3D bioprinting is that you start with a bio “ink” harvested from stem cells or human cells, and feed that ink through a printer that's programmed to assemble the cells to construct three dimensional tissue structures. Already, scientists have printed swaths of organ tissue; they imagine being able to print entire organs in the not too distant future.
So, by genetically modifying the cells that go into the printer, scientists can theoretically biomanufacture a transplantable body part with superhuman capabilities.
While engineering an existing organ into an electricity generator is impossible, building one from scratch, starting with modifying engineered cells, could do the trick. Electrogenic organs already exist in some marine creatures (such as electric eels), and engineering cells to produce a small voltage has already been accomplished, albeit at a tiny scale, said Ozbolat.
"The major problem is how to scale up the voltage to generate enough potential. We need to use multiple millions of these cells and integrate them in 3D to produce sufficient voltage," he said.
It’s looking more feasible all the time, but that kind of breakthrough is still many years into the future, Ozbolat said.
"Demonstration of a mini organ model lighting a bulb might be feasible in five years. But developing the technology for transplantation, hooking that up to the blood stream, connecting and synchronizing it with a heart with failed AV node will take much longer." Long enough that we probably won’t be enjoying superhuman organs in our lifetimes. Bioprinted "self-powered human” parts that generate electricity are at least 100 years off, Ozbolat said.
3D-printed scaffolds for cartilage tissue fabrication. Image: Advanced Manufacturing Technology Group
Unsurprisingly, the idea of electric organs has been floated in transhumanist circles before. In 2008, before 3D printing turbocharged tissue engineering, the blog Human Enhancement and Biopolitics painted a picture of what it might look like:
The most likely and practical option will be to have a small patch of electrogenic cells surrounding any electronic implant, like the prosthetic arm and cybernetic implants we will all have by that stage. They may also prove useful in biological pacemakers, if the heart was surrounded with electrogenic cells to provide impulses.
If the electric organ was just below the skin of our chest and arms, but very well insulated except for at ends of our fingers, we’d literally have the full current and voltage of the electric organ at our fingertips.
But while this may sound like a dream to a transhumanist, not everyone takes kindly to the idea of biomanufacturing artificial life with unnatural abilities. A recent Gartner report predicted that 3D bioprinting will advance much faster than the social understanding of the technology's implications, which will spark a major ethical debate within a couple years.
"What happens when complex 'enhanced' organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them? Who will ensure the quality of the resulting organs?" wrote Gartner. "These initiatives are well-intentioned, but raise a number of questions that remain unanswered.”
“Enhanced organs might have some side effects as well ... No one want to be a Frankenstein.”
Like many other emerging technologies, the question of how to regulate the human enhancement trend has policymakers scratching their heads. There’s currently no government regulations on bioprinting, bioprinted products or the machines, but there’s no way to know if and when that will change as commercial products start to hit the market. Right now, bioprinted tissues are used for drug testing, as a safer alternative to testing new products on humans. “Regulations will be more strict for organs for transplantation,” Ozbolat said.
Experts discussed the ethical and regulatory issues of bioprinting living organs at the RAPID conference this week, he said. For instance, patients may not be willing to let people use their cells for biomaterials.
“Enhanced organs might have some side effects as well; therefore, there should be some restrictions or limitations on that," said Ozbolat. “No one want to be a Frankenstein.”
And that’s the other inevitable lurking question: Even if 3D printing superorgans is possible, is it a good idea?