The technology of bioprinting could have as transformative a potential for near future human society as the wheel did for ancient logistics, and the Archimedes screw for farming. Last year, researchers at Princeton University created a functional ear using a modified USD$1,000 ink-jet printer, augmented with the potential to hear radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability, as the tissue was combined with electronics as it was grown. Now, bioprinting pioneers Organovo have announced that they will produce the world’s first functioning human ‘3D organ’ this year.
The 3D bioprinting scene is hotting up. The Hanghou University of Science and Technology in Zhejiang Province, China, announced the Regenovo in summer of 2013. Cornell University is working on 3D printed spinal discs, while the University of Iowa has a two-armed 3D bioprinter, which can lay down different types of cells simultaneously. The much publicised USA Diego-based company Organovo is testing out cancer drugs on specific cell types. Wake Forest University, USA, has developed a method to scan and print layers of skin cells on burn wounds.
Printing organs, whether as replacements and augmentations to humans, as food, or an alternative to animal testing, may in time change the world. The ethical considerations are far from black and white. The ethics of producing artificial organs are not a new phenomena, it was raised when something as (now) common as a heart pacemaker, for example, was developed. The ethics of producing bioprinted human organs however, are more complicated again. The current cost places this technology outside of major trends for the near future. But, what with the ever increasing speed of technological innovation – the near future is nearer than ever, and what can be concluded by observing the past gives us an epistemology for contemplating the near future: technology, genome, and morality are interlinked.
Human technology changes human behaviour. Human behaviour is governed by our moral codes. The way morality is realised, changes. Since mankind first used flint and fire, socially acceptable culture of the tribes who used these new technologies was changed by the use of those technologies. Human technology changes human biology. Human biology is also governed by our moral codes. More obviously by our ‘natural selection’ of partners that reflect our own moral code, with whom we pass our genes and memes on to our children – bad moral behaviour, generically, decreases the chances of reproduction. Less obviously, the new field of epigenetics teaches us that animals, including humans, actually influence how their genes are expressed via RNA. Put another way, we are not just the product of ‘nature or nurture’ – what we do in life, such as exercise levels, changes our genome directly. Technology changes our behaviours, and our biology, over time.
Whilst we cannot directly choose how we evolve via epigenetics, the sci-fi sounding world of bioprinting may emerge alongside understandings of how we are directly affecting our evolution. Through nanotechnology, bioprinting, genetics and more traditional medicines, humans are another step closer to transhumanism: beyond pure biological evolution. Interestingly, one posit which I ascribe to suggests that our ideas (memes) undergo a ‘survival of the fittest’ process, as individuals and groups. It is now our ideas that are the primary force for our genetic change, expressed through our technology. These are very much ‘big picture’ perspectives. There are far reaching individual questions, of which the following merely scratch the surface:
Will the number and type of organs produced per individual be limited by their ‘natural capacity,’ or be allowed to augment it? If augment: to what extent?
Will laws be required to prevent individuals from augmenting themselves with weapons?
Given the expense of the technology for the near future will 3D organs only add to inequality of life span and health between economic classes in nations?
The liver tissue model Organovo intends to release this year is for laboratory research use for medical studies and drug research, something that points to the potential of the end of animal testing. Thus, any imminent hopes for your own 3D printed heart as a birthday present are unlikely to be realized …… yet!