How We're Becoming... Repo Men


Posted November 8, 2012 - By Ashley Esqueda

“How We’re Becoming...” takes a look at existing (and upcoming technology) that seems to have come directly from pop culture, and how it intends to weave new threads into the fabric of society. We’ve all seen or heard something fictional we want desperately to materialize (we’re looking at you, Hoverboard), and these are the concepts that are actually coming true.

Ah, Repo Men. A film where an evil corporation (The Union) privately manufactures and sells artificial organs an insane prices by extending credit to desperate buyers hoping to extend their lives. Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forrest Whitaker) play repo guys who show up when you miss a payment to take back past-due organs. That can be... well, messy.

How We're Becoming... Repo Men

Source: Universal Pictures

...But what if fully functional vital organs grown in a lab were real? What if, in the near future, we could simply walk into a hospital and buy a fresh heart with no prior owner or fear of our body rejecting it?

Growing human tissue isn’t new; in fact, we’ve been growing things like ear structures via cow cartilage cells and ear-shaped molds on the backs of hairless rats for a while now.

How We're Becoming... Repo Men

Source: Department of Surgery, Children’s Hospital, Boston, Mass.

The inherent problem with the current process, though, is that the current foundation for lab grown biological parts are made with things like metal electrodes. It’s not the optimal way to do it. The best environment for cellular growth is -- shocker! -- not hard, cold metal or plastic.

As of right now, you can actually get certain organs engineered in a lab. For example, if you’re in dire need of a new bladder or esophagus, all science needs is some of your bladder tissue. Multiply those cells, slap ‘em onto a scaffold, and boom -- a few weeks later, you’ve got a new bladder, ready for implanting.

How We're Becoming... Repo Men

Source: Wake Forest University

Awesome, right? So what about organs like lungs, or hearts?

In August, chemical engineer Robert Langer and his team (from MIT, Harvard, and Boston Children’s Hospital) noted they’d seemingly solved one part of the complex problems facing lab-grown organs via microscopic wires called nanowires.

They’re silicon wires, 1,000x smaller than a hair on your head, and they can detect even the faintest pulses of voltage from living cells. They’re also spongy and soft, making a great bed for cells to grow in. Who doesn’t love a soft cozy bed?

How We're Becoming... Repo Men

Image: Charles M. Lieber and Daniel S. Kohane

The best part about nanowires is that they’re not science fiction; they’re science fact. Nanowires have already been used on new scaffolds to grow cardiac, muscle, and neural tissue. And, just like in Repo Men, this could lead to organs grown inside a sterile laboratory, and then sold to a waiting customer, like a custom pair of Vibrams.

Surely a lab grown heart becoming a reality would be hailed by the world over as a gift to be shared with all of mankind, so that people could obtain inexpensive replacement organs if they needed them? In a perfect world, of course. But nothing’s perfect.

The world presented to us in Repo Men is one we personally don’t like to fantasize about, but there’s a dark truth in the world of medical capitalism. It’s not a stretch to imagine a company who owns this technology making it insanely expensive to purchase. Would there be scary men who show up suddenly to cut your past-due purchase out of you? No one can obviously say for sure, since we haven’t quite figure out how to travel into the future. But should something like lab grown organs become a reality, some faction within the seedy underbelly of society will happily move in to occupy that gory niche if the price is right. Which is pretty freaking scary, if you ask us.

How We're Becoming... Repo Men

Source: Universal Pictures

Still, we know what you’re probably thinking: “Awesome! I can’t freaking WAIT to get my new lungs when I’m old and win the Ironman at 115 years old!”

Not so fast there, partner. This tech is in its earlier stages -- it could be decades from becoming a reality, depending on the organ in question. While that means you’ll have plenty of time to amass a fortune to leave to your descendants so they can buy a couple of new livers after one too many bottles of Glenfiddich, we wouldn’t bank on having this kind of stuff available (and even more so at a reasonable price) anytime soon.

The one thing you can do is start saving that extra scratch you have stashed for “emergency” Taco Bell runs (it’s okay, we all do it), and maybe someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll be one of the first people to survive with a heart that was grown in a lab.

Just one piece of advice from us: If you are going to invest in one, do yourself a favor and pay cash for it.

Tags: Features, Tech
How We're Becoming... Repo Men


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