The Bio-artificial Industry

The Bio-artificial Industry

The Bio-artificial Industry

Science, technology, and life.
May 1 2008 2:06 PM

The Bio-artificial Industry

How do you feel about mass-producing and selling human tissue in machine form? I hope you like the idea. Because it's on the way.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

A few days ago, the University of Michigan trumpeted a study validating the efficacy of its " bioartificial kidneys ." In a clinical trial involving people with acute renal injury and failure, the kidney boosters cut the usual death rate (compared to patients using conventional "continuous renal replacement therapy") from two in three patients to one in three .


Pretty amazing. But just what is a "bioartificial" kidney? Here's U-M's description:

The bioartificial kidney includes a cartridge that filters the blood as in traditional kidney dialysis. That cartridge is connected to a renal tubule assist device [RAD], which is made of hollow fibers lined with a type of kidney cell called renal proximal tubule cells. These cells are intended to reclaim vital electrolytes, salt, glucose and water, as well as control production of immune system molecules called cytokines, which the body needs to fight infection. Conventional kidney dialysis machines remove these important components of blood plasma, along with toxic waste products, and cannot provide the immune regulation function of living cells. Initial testing in animals ... found the cells in the RAD perform the metabolic and hormonal functions lost in acute renal failure.

This is the point I've made in recent posts about biological pacemakers and limb regeneration . Prosthetics are nice, but flesh is better. That's why the U.S. Army is now funding tissue regeneration . Instead of trying to reengineer everything in biology, we're learning to borrow, cultivate, and replicate it. Let Mother Nature do the work: She already knows how to filter toxins while keeping what your body needs and regulating your systems.

David Humes , the professor behind the U-M study, is also the scientific founder of the company that's preparing to commercialize the RAD. He envisions the new paradigm this way:

[T]he nature of our new approach -- using living cells as therapeutic agents -- argues for the feasibility of developing whole classes of new cell-based and tissue engineered therapies. The ability to harness vital processes of cells, to target their living molecular machinery on restoring critical substances which have become disordered by disease, has vast implications for the future of medicine. The apparently successful use of living cells in this way validates our approach and should encourage others to investigate cell therapies for a range of disorders.

Technologically, this is a sensible and powerful idea. It will save lives. But as an inflection point in our thinking about human flesh, it's, well, pretty RAD. What we're getting into is not just the commercialization but the mass-production of body parts. It's a bit like PETA's campaign to commercialize lab-grown meat -- except that in this case, the meat will be human.

Where do we get the cells in the cartridge from? According to the American Society of Nephrology, they're "grown from donor kidneys ." So we're starting with somebody's donated organ. Instead of transplanting it to one person, we're growing cells from it, which can then be farmed out to multiple patients. We're not just distributing the cells; we're incorporating them into what U-M calls a " living cell cartridge ." It's bio -- it's artificial -- it's bio-artificial.

Like lab-grown meat, the living tissue in the cartridge may run into spoilage problems. U-M notes that its researchers are still working on the "challenges of mass producing, storing and shipping a living-cell device." But the goal, according to the nephrology society, is definitely "mass production." And the next step will be to repackage it as a "wearable kidney that performs natural functions unachievable through man-made technology alone." Real flesh, grown from somebody else, mass-produced, packaged into a cartridge, and worn on your body. Good luck sorting the bio from the artificial.