Human 2.0: Augmented Humanity

Written by: Jeanette DePatie

Via technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), scientists are working diligently to make machines that can think like humans. At the same time they are working on technology to help keep humans going—replacing lost limbs, growing or printing new organs, and even creating tools that can reprogram human DNA without a single incision. Scientists are also creating ways to make humans better than ever with robot arms to lift hundreds of pounds and jetpacks to fly like superheroes. While many fear that robots will replace us, there is ongoing work to make humans into superhumans—better than ever before.

Can Westworld Be Far Away?: Cyber 3D Body Printing

3D printing has come a long way from creating plastic pencil holders and desk decorations. Scientists recently reported they found a way to 3D print cartilage tissue using a bioprinting ink containing human cells. To create the bioink, scientists are mixing human chondrocytes (cells that build up cartilage) with cellulose fibrils from wood with polysaccharides from brown algae. They successfully tested this technology in an in vivo mouse model. Scientists hope to use this technology soon to print precisely matched implants to heal or replace damaged noses, ears, and knees. But scientists warn that further work needs to be done before the effort can move on to human trials.

Some of the most exciting work is currently being conducted by Dr. Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He is currently using an 800-pound steel machine called an Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (ITOP for short) to print cells, bones, and even organs. Along with other scientists, Atala transplanted cartilage bone and muscle tissue into rodents. After several months, they confirmed that the tissue had developed nerves and blood vessels. They are currently working on 30 different tissues and organs and have transplanted a total of 8 organs and tissues into humans.[1]

Even processes to remove blood-borne pathogens are getting a reboot. Scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in Boston have essentially created an artificially engineered spleen. This device can cleanse blood of impurities such as E. coli and other precursor bacteria that causes diseases such as Ebola. The artificial spleen uses proteins and magnets to clean the blood. The proteins that bond to many bacteria are injected with magnetic nano-beads. The device uses magnets to pull the bound bacteria out of the blood, which is now clean and can be transfused back into the patient.[2]

Scientists hope to ultimately create and transplant complex organs in the near future. Tissues for congenital heart surgery are showing promise. And while liver tissue is proving difficult to make, scientists have accomplished several “non-transplantable” livers and have been able to create the 3D structure of the cells within the liver. They have also been able to create 3D renal tissues for building kidneys. Fully transplantable 3D organs may not be here yet, but the need is great and the future looks bright for this technology.

Star Trek Tricorders Becoming a Reality?

That little gadget of Dr. McCoy sure seems handy. You just run the small device over any creature and the device analyzes medical conditions and makes recommendations. In 2012, Qualcomm Life launched the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE—a global competition that challenges teams to create a working tricorder—meaning a wireless portable device that can accurately diagnose a number of diseases and can function outside of a clinical environment. The prize was awarded in 2017 to a family-run, Pennsylvania-based team (Final Frontier Medical Devices). The Final Frontier team created DxtER (pronounced Dexter), which includes a group of non-invasive sensors that collects data about vital signs, biological functions, and body chemistry and correlates that with data from clinical emergency medicine. DxtER has been shown to quickly assess and diagnose patient data outside of a clinical setting.[3]

In perhaps an even more exciting development, scientists are testing out a device that could heal brain injuries and organs in seconds without surgery. The Ohio State University created a non-invasive chip that lies on the surface of the skin. This chip uses Tissue Nanotransfection to alter skin cells into cells of any kind. The chip is laid on the skin surface and then electrical current is applied. The genetic code of the skin cells under the chip is then altered and used to repair organs. Successful trials were conducted on mice and pigs. For example, one mouse had a damaged leg that was not receiving any blood flow. The chip was used to change skin cells to vascular (blood flow) cells. After a few weeks, the body regrew blood vessels and the leg was back to normal again. The team believes this same technique could be used to fix everything from brain injuries to nerve damage. Scientists hope to begin clinical trials on humans in 2018.

RoboCop and Turbo Limbs with a Sense of Touch

Artificial limbs have been around for centuries, but the technological advances seen during the past few decades have been astounding. Humans may now select from a number of artificial limbs depending on what they intend to do—whether it is walking, dancing, or running in Olympic track and field events. In 2012, a runner using blades (specially designed artificial legs for running) competed in the London Olympics. All these years later, questions still arise as to whether those prosthetic limbs actually gave the runner an unfair advantage over runners without prosthetic limbs. What is not in question is the improvements in function and efficiency offered by today’s prosthetic limbs.

But what about touch? The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is doing amazing work in developing prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the mind and have some sense of touch. Patients are undergoing a groundbreaking surgery called sensory reinnervation that remaps the nerves responsible for touch. New modular prosthetic limbs (MPLs) receive and interpret signals from the body’s nervous system and convert those signals to motion on the limb. These limbs also interact with objects via hundreds of sensors, sending information back to the brain that creates a rudimentary sense of touch. In some cases, patients have received limbs that actually give a sense of touch fine enough for them to feel individual fingers and precisely control objects.[4]

Aside from replacement prosthetics, interesting work is progressing in robotics that assist fully functional limbs in doing things they otherwise could not do. The University of Pennsylvania created the Titan Arm—a strength enhancing exoskeleton for the upper body that will help the wearer lift an extra 40 pounds. This is designed not only to help people regain strength after a stroke or injury, but also to help people who lift heavy objects for a living to do so safely.[5] Other experiments are under way in creating an Iron Man–style suit called the TALOS suit. The body armor provides ballistic fire and shock prevention for soldiers. The U.S. Army hopes to deploy a working prototype by 2018. Several companies are also currently working on hydrogen peroxide fueled jetpacks that will allow us to fly like superheroes. So far, the prototypes are extremely limited in duration and range, but they are considered important harbingers of the technology to come.

[1] “Could Westworld Ever Be a Reality?: This Doctor Is Already 3D Printing Tissues and Organs.” Circa, 2/3/17.

[2] “Bio-Spleen: A Breakthrough for Treating Blood-Bourne Pathogens.” Quantum Run, 11/19/14.

[3] “Family-Led Team Takes Top Prize in Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE Competition for Consumer Medical Device Inspired by Star Trek®.”

[4] “The Mind Controlled Robotic Arm with a Sense of Touch.” Motherboard, 8/18/16.

[5] “10 Futuristic Technologies That May Come True Soon.” Culture.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.