Spare liver, anyone? No longer an absurd question

The developing ability of scientists to grow human organs in the lab is leading many experts to predict a new age of unlimited replacement items for the human body.

There was excitement on the BBC and in most of the papers yesterday about “human spare parts”. The story is that a team from Massachusetts General Hospital has finally succeeded in using stem cell technology to repair a damaged rat’s liver in the lab. The liver was regenerated, put back inside the rat and worked.

Within five to ten years the same could be done for humans. And similar techniques could be used for many other body parts too. News reports often refer to the ultimate dream: one day, we will be able to go to hospital whenever a vital organ breaks down and get a good-as-new “spare part”.

Research into stem cells - cells that have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth - has been active for over 100 years. They serve as aninternal repair system, replenishing other cells as long as a person or animal is still alive.

This is the basis of what scientists are calling “regenerative medicine” – a renewable source of replacement tissues to treat Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and more.

In 2006 US scientists grew fully functioning bladders in a lab by taking a sample of bladder tissue from seven patients and growing seven new bladders. In 2008 a 30-year-old Spanish woman from Barcelona was given a new windpipe grown with her own cells in labs across Europe.

And now, according to yesterday’s story, healthy new livers have been created by chemically stripping damaged livers down to their “scaffold” and building them up again. For now the technique requires human donors but it should be possible to use pig’s livers in future.

Crowded world

Nobody would argue with the benefit of being able to help people born with congenital defects or victims of accident and disease. The argument over the future of spare parts surgery is what we do about the merely indulgent: the alcoholic who wants a new liver, the smoker who wants a new pair of lungs. And beyond that lies the greater debate about death. If regenerative medicine can help humans live to 120 or more, what sort of a world will we make for ourselves? A crowded one, certainly.

You Decide

  1. If scientists could grow replacement human livers, kidneys and hearts (for example) that were as good as new should heavy drinkers and smokers be allowed to have them?
  2. If five out of ten people in society were over 60, what might be some of the advantages that arise from it? And what might be some of the disadvantages?

Some People Say...

“I beat the people from China. I win against China. You can win against China if you're smart.”

Donald Trump

What do you think?