Flesh, Blood, and Plastic

Flesh, Blood, and Plastic

Flesh, Blood, and Plastic

Science, technology, and life.
May 1 2008 1:23 PM

Flesh, Blood, and Plastic

I'm working on a post about bio-artificial organs for later this afternoon. In the meantime, I want to call your attention to a related item in this morning's news batch : a report in New Scientist about plastic red blood cells .

First of all, can I just say: I love New Scientist . It's one of the coolest things you could spend your time reading. They do just about the world's best job of keeping tabs on the latest far-flung developments in science. Believe me, I've been trying to do this for a month, and it's incredibly hard. It's not like politics, where everybody agrees on central characters and a narrative, like Hillary's latest photo op or what Obama ate for breakfast. You really have to scan the horizon and stay on your toes.

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In this case, NS reporter Justin Mullins has flagged a patent application for plastic blood cells. If you get malaria or sickle-cell anemia, your red blood cells lose the agility to pass through small blood vessels. Wouldn't it be great if we could give you artificial blood cells to do the job? The patent application proposes exactly this: tiny "sacks" made of a chemical that's biologically harmless and binds easily so it can carry oxygen or carbon dioxide. Experiments in mice look OK so far.

The idea of having little plastic sacks pumped into your bloodstream sounds pretty freaky. We're talking about filling you with petroleum products in a way that challenges the meaning of "flesh and blood." For all I know, further animal or human testing may find unforeseen health risks from this kind of mixture, particularly at such a small scale and with such pervasion of the body. But if the technology turns out to be safe, it'll go a long way toward loosening our concept of ourselves as biological creatures.

So much for artificial technology replacing biology. Next, we'll talk about the reverse.