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Bioengineering Nanotechnology

Your Upgrade Is Ready

12 years, 7 months ago

1005  0
Posted on May 08, 2006, 5 a.m. By Bill Freeman

Evolution has done its best, but there's a limit to how many plug-and-play neural implants, supercharged blood cells, strong-as-steel bone replacements and mind-controlled PCs you can expect from randomly colliding natural forces. Wanna be Superman? Better call the engineers.

Evolution has done its best, but there's a limit to how many plug-and-play neural implants, supercharged blood cells, strong-as-steel bone replacements and mind-controlled PCs you can expect from randomly colliding natural forces. Wanna be Superman? Better call the engineers.

The Modern Guy’s Tools--the basic keyboard, scuba tank, cordless drill--are used pretty much like the old mastodon-femur club or flint scraping knife. You take them in hand and apply some muscle. Then you put them away (or misplace them somewhere in the garage) until the next time.

The concept of a tool is a bit different for Robert Freitas, a researcher who's drawn up plans for an oxygen-carrying nanobot that, injected into the bloodstream, could let a human dive without tanks for hours at a time. And for the University of Chicago engineer who's working out the technology to let someone send an e-mail just by thinking about it. And for the researchers developing nanobots powered by glucose that could clean your arteries for decades without ever needing new batteries. Such devices will disappear inside our bodies, operating on a semipermanent basis and gradually transforming us into, well, superheroes. Skeptical? Imagine what the user of a cellphone or a Cessna--or, heck, the telegraph--would have looked like to the guy who invented the wheel. Even greater changes lie ahead. Ready, wheel-user? Here's a preview of the guy one researcher calls Homo technicus.

HOW WE'LL BE ABLE TO Merge With Our Machines
By the year 2000, 25 million Americans had medical implants, such as pacemakers and artificial hips, made of the same sorts of metal alloys and ceramics engineers use in other sophisticated machinery. The implants of the future will be different. Researchers in several countries are growing neurons on silicon chips like vines on a garden trellis to create a better point of contact between the brain and future neurological implants. Tejal Desai, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, has tested an artificial pancreas in rats that could change the way diabetes is treated. Living islet cells inside microscopic chips release just the right amount of insulin at just the right time--a big advance over finger--prick tests and injections. Desai plans to use similar technology to treat neurological disorders. And a new kind of synthetic bone, ready to compete with such orthopedic mainstays as titanium screws, should be in clinical use by early 2007.

NanOss, created by a company in Woburn, Mass., called Angstrom Medica, is made of the same material as our skeletons, hydroxyapatite. NanOss is bone, but it's better, having been restructured at the molecular level into a sort of superbone. One of the first devices incorporating nanotechnology to receive FDA approval, NanOss encourages real bone to fuse with it--resulting in a hybrid that is as tough as steel. "We've created something that is strong and bioactive," says Edward Ahn, who developed NanOss while he was a graduate student at MIT. Until now, he says, "these two have been mutually exclusive."

Such materials merge with their human hosts, straddling the divide between the living and the inanimate. Things, it must be said, can get creepy. A UCLA team led by biomedical engineering professor Carlo Montemagno grew heart-muscle cells onto a gold and silicon structure. Using methods borrowed from computer chip makers, they first etched supporting "beams" into a thin block of silicon. They coated the surface with a biocompatible polymer and an arched layer of gold. Then they deposited living heart-muscle cells from a rat. After the replicating cells enveloped the gold, the polymer was dissolved and beams snapped off, and the microscopic device--an organic-inorganic hybrid--began to shuffle forward. "This device is alive," Montemagno says.

Unsettling, right? But it's useful, too. This miniature Frankenstein is self-assembling and requires no power source other than the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules that power living cells. The back-and-forth movement of many such biobots, grown from a patient's own shoulder muscle, might one day generate the electricity to power implants--perhaps helping paralyzed patients to breathe.

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