How to Build a Bionic Man

Written by


We can rebuild you! Well almost. There’s barely a bit of the human body we can’t 3D print, grow in a tube or cobble together with plastic these days. And by “we” – we actually mean extremely brainy scientific boffins.

Those boffins are still some way from creating a fully artificial human, but medical science is at a tipping point where many human “components” can now be replaced or at least repaired by artificial means. And though many of these parts are still in prototype, it won’t be long before they’re in general medical use.

Don’t believe us? Here are some choice body parts you’ll soon be able to replace.

Have a Heart

Things weren’t looking too good for Chad Washington at the end of 2012. The 35 year old’s body was rejecting the heart he’d had transplanted six months earlier. A new transplant wasn’t an option. His immune system was attacking the donor organ and would do the same to another heart.

Chad Washington and the rucksack that powers his heart.

Chad Washington and the rucksack that powers his heart.

Doctors at the University of California in Los Angeles had an answer though. On October 29th, Chad had the failing organ removed in a seven-hour operation and replaced with a bionic implant.

“By removing the patient’s diseased donor heart, we removed the source of his end-stage heart failure,” said Dr. Ali Nsair, an assistant professor of cardiology at UCLA. “The artificial heart allows his body to recover and get ready for a heart transplant in a few months.”

Weighing in at 13.5 lbs (6 kg), Chad’s new heart has a battery that fits into a rucksack. Previous mechanical heart patients were house-bound or had to live out their lives on hospital wards – but Chad can pick-up groceries at the corner shop or watch a football game. He can even go for a modest ramble in the countryside.

Offally Good

Even though we can now safely transplant most living organs, the development of artificial alternatives remains crucial.

“Less than 10% of people who need a kidney transplant can get one,” says Professor Shuvo Roy, who heads up the Biomedical Microdevices Laboratory at UC San Francisco, “There are just not enough organs available.”

Professor Roy’s lab is working on a bio-mechanical kidney, a fully implantable device designed to replace dialysis and kidney transplants. Already fast tracked for trials, the organ should be cleared for clinical use by 2020.

“The underlying concept has been demonstrated to work in patients,”explains Professor Roy. “We are building on known scientific principles, instead of looking for new discoveries.”

The artificial kidney is no stop gap either. It’s not intended for use as a last resort when “real” organs aren’t available. The Professor and his collaborators want this to be a frontline therapy to replace organic transplants entirely…

The latest prototype of UCSF's artificial kidney is on the right. Doesn't look like a kidney, but does the job...

The latest prototype of UCSF’s artificial kidney is on the right. Doesn’t look like a kidney, but does the job…

Deep Breath

Full lung replacements aren’t quite ready for primetime, but we’re getting close. The “total artificial lung” won’t look much like the pink breathing sacks you have hidden inside your chest – but it will do the same job. There are already portable prototypes that sit outside the body, about the size of a tin can.

A team has been working on the implantable breathing machine now for 23 years, based on research work conducted by Professor Robert Bartlett at the University of Michigan.

At this stage in the biolung’s development, it’s designed as temporary solution “ It will be
just a bridge to transplantation,” Professor Bartlett told Thoracic Surgery News, It will come along in the usual fashion of artificial organs: relatively slowly.”

In the future, patients may not need to wait as long for a transplant though. They may go from one type of artificial lung to another; a lung that has been organically grown in a lab.

Researchers at the University of Texas have already done just that, growing laboratory lungs from human stem cells. Though it may be more accurate to say the UT lungs were “regenerated”. The team used damaged lungs from donor patients as a “scaffold” and then repaired them with stem cell tissue, growing the regenerated lungs in a fish tank…

“I’m not kidding,” team leader Dr. Joan Nichols told Medical News Today, “He went and bought it from a pet store…”

The technique means that, in about a decade’s time, there will be many more donor organs available to those who need them.

Second Sight

The cross-pollination of biological science with engineering – bioengineering – allows researchers to create solutions that seem like science fiction. When Professor of engineering Wentai Liu was asked to help create an artificial retina at UCLA in 1988, he felt pretty much the same way.

“I thought it was a great idea,” says Professor Liu. “But I asked, ‘What can I do?’ because I didn’t know much about biology.”

Project lead Dr. Mark Humayun handed him a medical manual the size of War and Peace. “It was a very steep learning curve,” recalls Liu.

Liu’s background in integrated chip design led to some novel innovations and, twenty-five years later, the bionic eye is now an incredible reality.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System brings sight to sufferers of macular degeneration and other diseases affecting vision, using a technology that effectively wires a digital camera into an artificial retina that’s implanted in the wearer’s eye.

Beneficiaries of the technology are able to see outlines, light and shapes— some for the first time in decades.

The "bionic eye" is reality - its technology already in place.

The “bionic eye” is reality – its technology already in place.

Ear Hear

Sight’s not the only sense that can be replaced by bionic implants. Hearing aids are evolving beyond simple amplification systems into replacement ears. Researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales have created cochlear implants that not only enable some deaf people to hear speech for the first time – but hear differences in pitch.

In a true synergy of biology and engineering, the UNSW’s research team have discovered a way to encourage nerves in the ear canal to regrow, stimulated by “neurotrophins”; a type of naturally occurring protein. The implant delivers the neurotrophins directly to where they are needed; the inner ear.

“People with cochlear implants do well with understanding speech, but their perception of pitch can be poor, so they often miss out on the joy of music,” says Prof. Gary Housley, of the Translational Neuroscience Facility at UNSW, “Ultimately, we hope that after further research, people who depend on cochlear implant devices will be able to enjoy a broader dynamic and tonal range of sound.”

More than a Feeling

When it comes to replacing limbs, bioengineers are already batting it out of the park. The 2013 Paralympics showcased a range of artificial limb technologies, from running blades to ski attachments that not only replace missing legs, but augment them.

Limb replacement technologies are so advanced that we’re moving on from bio-mimicry and precision engineering to mind control. The next wave of prosthetic legs and arms will be controlled by electrical impulses from the human mind…

These technologies partly harness the hard-wired neurological and psychological attachment we already have to our limbs. 48 year old Igor Spetic is among the first to try out a new artificial hand that’s controlled by his mind. The prosthetic not only reacts to his mental commands, it even has a sense of touch.

In blind tests, Spetic was able to distinguish between different materials brushed along the artificial limb – including sandpaper and cotton – in 20 different places along the arm. The artificial hand was developed at Case Western Reserve University.

Limb enhancement is so far along that it’s the one bioengineering technology that can clearly improve on the squishy organic bodies we were born with.

Professor Homayoon Kazerooni’s group at the University of California, Berkeley branch, is making exoskeletons that make people stronger and give them more stamina. The commercial applications of the work, partly funded by the military, are already available.

The HULC exoskeleton, making soldiers better, stronger and faster.

The HULC exoskeleton, making soldiers better, stronger and faster.

These exoskeletons use robot technologies to improve human lifting power and endurance. For example, the HULC exoskeleton, developed jointly by Berkeley Bionics and Lockheed Martin, enables a person to carry up to 200 lbs in weight. Wearers can walk, run and jump pretty much as normal—and will use less oxygen in the process because the exoskeleton does most of the work.

So far, artificial organs, limbs and cybernetic systems have mostly been used when our too-frail biological systems fail to do their job or our existing strength needs augmentation. But it’s only a matter of time before these replacements become better than life.

In fact, when you look closely at it, there’s only one major body part left that we can’t yet replace… And that’s the brain.

And that’s a comforting thing to know. We may be invaded by robo-zombies in the future, with mechanical hearts and lungs grown in a jar, but we’ll still be able to kill them with a swift blow to the head…