Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, March 14, 2016

Medical Marvels

Biotechnological advances are being made every day. One of the most exciting and  groundbreaking is that of Anthony Atala. His research has contributed to the creation of materials which work with the body to heal itself in ways that it otherwise could not do on its own. These materials piece organs back together or strengthen damaged bone. With careful use of some of these products, previously thought permanent damage can, in fact, be reversed.

Even more sensational is the prospect of organ donation. Through the use of stem cells--and less controversial methods, Atala has managed to produce a functioning bladder and is working toward the production of kidneys. On stage, he presents a 3D printer in the process of creating a kidney. He says it takes roughly seven hours to print one. Imagine being in a desperate situation and hearing that your salvation--or that of someone you love--is a mere seven hours away. An organ that will be tailored to your genes, foolproof against rejection or wearing out.

While the clinical testing for these kidneys is still years away--years! Not decades!--a functioning bladder has already been created and transplanted through similar means. One of Atala’s guests is a college student named Luke, who, at the age of ten, needed a new bladder. The bladder Atala and his team created is the one that remains fully functional in the young man today:
So after the surgery, life got a lot better for me. I was able to do more things. I was able to wrestle in high school. I became the captain of the team, and that was great. I was able to be a normal kid with my friends. And because they used my own cells to build this bladder, it's going to be with me. I've got it for life, so I'm all set.
And now, with the advent of the 3D printer, such miracles can be worked in a matter of hours.

Crazier still, Atala reveals the prospect of a science fiction worthy invention. This device scans a wounded piece of the body and then layers cells, much like the 3D printer except directly onto the human, in order to heal the injury. I encourage you to watch his TED Talk to find out more:

Unfortunately, though, we cannot wait for people like Atala. His medical marvels are approaching fast but not fast enough. Every ten minutes a name, a person, a life is added to the organ donor list. Approximately 79 people will receive a lifesaving organ today. Yet another 22 will die waiting for one. These numbers are frightening, because the organ crisis is real. The demand continues to rise while the supply--at best--remains the same. (Atala’s products are still considered experimental and are therefore not acceptable in the mainstream where the need is greatest.)

This is not to say that we should all sign up to give away a kidney--though they are the most needed and most successful transplant organ. We can’t all be Ben from Seven Pounds. But we can donate blood, since every two seconds someone in the United States needs a transfusion. Or we can check a box on our driver’s license.

It’s frightening to contemplate our own mortality. And it is inconvenient to take time out of one’s day to be poked, prodded, and drained. Plus, the human propensity for the diffusion of responsibility is immense. Yet it is vital that we overcome these obstacles and cultivate our beneficence. For the need today far outweighs the aesculapian promises of tomorrow. Until the future’s genius is ready, we must remain reliant on the altruism in the present.

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