A novel idea is incubating in biomedical labs: tissue engineered organs made from biomaterials and the patient's own stem cells. Such a concept may sound like science fiction when one considers the vast knowledge required to provide a functional substitute for one of nature's creations; however this immense scientific breakthrough is a reality. You might be thinking - are we one step closer to becoming an immortal species? Can we order our extra body parts and store them in banks in a case of emergency? Well, not just yet.
The scientific community is facing many limitations in developing artificial organs with complex functionalities such as the heart, lungs and kidneys but has made a remarkable progress in developing bio-artificial skin, nerves, arteries, noses, tracheas and many more. Yet again, limitations can be thought of as the mother of invention; it helps you create the impossible. In order to embrace the tangible and near term benefits of the artificial organ technology we need to ask ourselves: are we ready for this innovation?
Beneficiaries of regenerative medicine and artificial organ technology include patients in need of transplants, the increasingly ageing population, people with sports injuries, and war casualties. There is no doubt of the excessive need for the life-saving artificial organ technology and no price can be put on the improvement to the patient's life. However, there is not yet any legislative framework or any viable clinical therapeutic pathway in order to make artificial organs accessible to patients. Every day, hundreds of people die globally while waiting for an organ transplant and every 10 minutes a new patient is added to the waiting list. Britain is also heading to an unprecedented all-time high with the number of patients registered on the waiting lists escalating to more than 8,000, while thousands are ineligible for the list due to acute organ failure. It seems as though you have to be sick enough to be listed but well enough to survive the transplant. In addition, artificial organs have been successfully transplanted into patients but the European Medicine's Agency has yet to approve this technology as an alternative clinical approach and thus these few successful cases had to face significant bureaucratic obstacles to be implemented.
The emerging field of regenerative medicine can revolutionize the current practices in transplantations, provide alternative treatments for heart valve disease and neurodegenerative disorders, become a viable solution to the organ donor shortage problem, completely restore damaged muscles, tendons, skin and other tissues and most importantly give an end to the illicit organ trading that is rising in third world countries by annihilating the need for real organs. It is about time to evaluate the moral, ethical, and social arguments and hopefully develop a framework which blends all of the aforementioned considerations into a harmonious existence, working to the maximum benefit of society.
So, while the challenges we are facing, in the field of developing artificial life, are daunting, I have never been more optimistic about our ability to solve them. UK is definitely emerging as a biotechnology powerhouse with the production of many artificial organs and state-of-the-art regenerative medicine technologies that have already saved patients' lives (such as artificial nerves, tracheas, skin etc). The new paradigms have not yet led to clear, unequivocal legislative, and clinical specifications, and only when they do so will the role of the bioengineering scientist within the new era of medical technology become obvious. It is of paramount importance to increase the registrants at the NHS donor organ list (currently less than 1/3 of the British population is listed), develop a clinical pathway based on artificial organ treatment accessible and affordable to patients in need and in the same time provide scientific funds in order to expedite the progress in the development of artificial organ with complex functionalities.
A big national campaign could help to energize more people to register as organ donors and also raise awareness about the benefits of artificial organ technology. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's up to us.
Eleni Antoniadou is shortlisted for the 2013 First Women Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.