He lacks the rugged good looks and engineered athleticism of TV’s bionic superhero Steve Austin, but this six-foot tall android creation is a glimpse beyond a future of life-saving medical advances to a world of mass-produced body parts.
Meet Rex – short for robotic exoskeleton. He’s been assembled using an array of artificial limbs and organs – some already in use and some still in development – for a Channel 4 documentary that explores the pioneering work taking place in science labs around the world.
“It’s exciting and a bit scary,” admits psychologist and programme presenter Dr Bertolt Meyer. “We might be at a point in science and technology where we see first glimpses of the possibilities to go beyond the limits of evolution.” These include a microchip implanted in the human brain to restore memory loss and provide a possible cure for Alzheimer’s. But ponder this from an American scientist interviewed in the programme: “The real point will come when someone says ‘I want faster legs so I’m going to cut off the legs I have and get these faster legs’. That’s the point at which society will have to figure out what they’re going to do about these things.”
Designed for those who have lost their sight due to degeneration of the retina. A microchip attached to the patient’s retina has a wireless antenna that converts video images captured by a tiny camera housed within the patient’s glasses into electrical pulses. These, in turn, are translated by the brain into shapes and patterns. “You cannot see much, but it is possible to detect the edges of objects,” says Meyer. “And that’s a big step forward for those who have no sight.” The system is now approved for use in Europe and the US.
EAR Developed at Macquarie University, Austrailia
When a person loses their hearing or is born without it, cochlear implants can allow them to hear. A processor worn behind the ear converts sound into electrical impulses. These are sent wirelessly through the skin to the implant. Its tiny electrodes stimulate the inner ear’s nerve cells, which send signals to the brain where they’re interpreted as sound.
TRACHEA Developed at Royal Free Hospital, London
“The artificial trachea is made from a completely laboratory engineered material,” says Meyer. It’s seeded with the patient’s stem cells, then implanted in the body. “Human cells colonise around it and eventually it becomes indistinguishable from a human trachea,” he says. In 2011, surgeons in London carried out the first implant of this artificial trachea — the patient is doing well.
HEART Developed in Tucson, Arizona, USA
“This is a bridging device designed to keep patients alive until a human heart becomes available,” says Meyer. The artificial heart is installed in the chest cavity after the diseased heart is removed and is powered by a battery that the patient can carry around with them. It can operate for months, but is not a substitute for a donor heart. And it comes at a price — $120,000. So far, more than 1,000 of these hearts have been implanted across the US and Europe.
SPLEEN-ON-A-CHIP Developed at Yale University, USA
The spleen prevents poisoning by filtering blood, but when people are seriously injured their blood may become so infected that the spleen can’t cope — a condition known as sepsis, which annually kills 37,000 people in the UK. This chip uses nanotechnology to trap infections as a patient’s blood is passed through. US military funding is helping to develop the system into a portable unit that can be used on injured soldiers.
PANCREAS Developed at De Montfort University, Leicester
For sufferers of diabetes, this artificial organ would work in tandem with the malfunctioning pancreas. It’s implanted in the gut and when blood glucose rises, a special gel barrier in the pancreas breaks up, releasing the insulin stored inside. Then, when blood glucose falls again, the gel reforms— stopping the insulin flow. The artificial pancreas is kept topped up by injecting insulin into a port implanted just under the skin. It’s still a prototype, but it has proved successful in testing.
BLOOD Developed at Sheffield University
The blood is totally artificial and yet it has been found to be capable of binding and carrying oxygen. Carried as a paste, it would be dissolved in water and used to keep patients alive in battlefield or major accident situations where there’s a shortage of donor blood.
KIDNEY Developed at University of California, San Francisco
This unit packs the technology of a fridge-sized dialysis machine into a unit no larger than a coffee cup, and could potentially benefit people on dialysis, many of whom die awaiting a transplant. “This is still very much a prototype — but if they can make the breakthrough it would be implanted into patients as a permanent replacement, not just as an interim thing,” says Meyer. “But it’s large-scale science and would be very, very expensive. That’s the issue we have to grapple with — will an organisation like the NHS ever be able to afford to embrace the technology.”
HAND AND ARM Hand developed in Scotland and the arm in Utah, USA
These prosthetics respond to tiny electrical impulses given out through the skin when amputees, or people born without arms, twitch muscles in their residual limbs. Meyer, who has the same artificial hand as the bionic man, says that each of the fingers has an individual motor with what he describes as “a bit of intelligence” that learns to detect the shape of things that it’s holding. “Each finger is individually driven and they can do many, many different movements. Most artificial hands can only open and close — this hand is like a real human hand.”
FOOT AND ANKLE Developed in Massachusetts, USA
The prosthetic ankle and foot uses robotic technology to replicate the actions of the calf muscle and Achilles tendon. Whether a user is walking, running or going up stairs, sensors in the ankle read their body movements, then deliver the right amount of power to match what they’re doing.