It’s a Strange, Strange World


Okay, so you can forget cloning, at least in the traditional sense. It turns out we're not that far from having yet another of STAR TREK's "technologies" becoming fact.

I'm talking bioprinting. 3D bioprinting, to be exact. Never heard of it? Here's a direct quote from one of the companies that is currently working on the technology:

"Organovo’s bioprinting process centers around the identification of key architectural and compositional elements of a target tissue, and the creation of a design that can be utilized by a bioprinter to generate that tissue in the laboratory environment.

Once a tissue design is established, the first step is to develop the bioprocess protocols required to generate the multi-cellular building blocks--also called bio-ink--from the cells that will be used to build the target tissue.

The bio-ink building blocks are then dispensed from a bioprinter, using a layer-by-layer approach that is scaled for the target output. Bio-inert hydrogel components may be utilized as supports, as tissues are built up vertically to achieve three-dimensionality, or as fillers to create channels or void spaces within tissues to mimic features of native tissue.

The bioprinting process can be tailored to produce tissues in a variety of formats, from micro-scale tissues contained in standard multi-well tissue culture plates, to larger structures suitable for placement onto bioreactors for biomechanical conditioning prior to use. ("

Translation, for those of us who don't speak advanced bioengineer: "We made these substances we call organic inks and we put them in a variation of a 3D printer and then we print the stuff in layers onto a matrix framework and it will develop into the target material or organ."

Translation two, for everyone whose eyes glazed over in that paragraph: "We can grow you a new ear or skin or liver."

Because that's what's been accomplished so far. Scientists at various companies have managed to create healthy patches of skin that can be used as grafts, created an ear for a mouse, and produced a section of a liver that functioned properly.

All of this was done through biochemistry and some non-fetal stem cells.

Which brings us back to STAR TREK. Remember the episode "What are Little Girls Made Of?" The mad scientist has created this amorphous goo that gets molded into a human shape, and then computers and some alien technology are used to create a 3D map of a real person and transfer that design to the blob. A few spins around in the machine, and Presto! You've got an exact duplicate of that person.

How far are we from people having their own individual duplicates? Hard to say. There are still a few kinks to work out. Such as, right now only certain kinds of tissues can be printed. Bone, for instance, isn't coming along as smoothly. And the printed parts still need to get put together. Not like you can build a skeleton, string in all the veins and arteries and nerves, insert the organs, wrap everything in muscle and skin, and send Johnny Number Two to work while you go on vacation.

But it's not hard to imagine that a short distance down the road will be a time where you can get a new liver or kidney printed up and sewn in and be back to work two weeks later. No more waiting lists for organ recipients. No more dying of liver or kidney failure. Maybe even new hearts can be grown--turns out they're not so hard to install, either. Lost an eye or ear in the war? Have a new one on the government (be careful, though; government parts are twice as expensive and might not match the originals).

Are you in the One Percent? Hey, just have your own private printing lab on standby in case you get ill or injured. You can run the company for the next two hundred years!

And it won't just stop there. Once the technology isn't expensive, we can print and grow our own food. Who needs the whole cow? Just grow the shank. Steak for dinner! Without the need for all that grazing space, we can build more malls and Wal-Marts and fast food joints. With a little DNA and some undifferentiated stem cells, zoos can grow their own exhibits. We can build entire armies, or create teams of people to go explore space, while the real soldiers and scientists sit home nice and safe, and collect the salaries.

And, since a lot of the stem cells used came from adipose tissue (fat!), a whole new source of income will open up for people--donating your fat to science. Great news for writers and gamers. You can eat all you want and never exercise, and then every couple of years get your fat harvested. For cash money, no less!

So forget cloning, forget robots. Who needs 'em?

Instead, buy stock in Hewlett-Packard, Brother, and Canon. 'Cause you know the printer companies will be getting into this business.

Until next time ...

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