The news in the New York Times this week was subdued: organ printing isn’t happening any time soon. There are evidently lots of technical challenges ahead. In the meantime, however, promising new technologies are being developed and fascinating experiments are underway aimed at producing “simple” biomaterials like cartilage—the “low hanging fruit” of the bioprinting world.
So should we still be excited? Absolutely. The news that bioprinting is happening at all is incredible. But we should be a little worried as well, or a lot worried, depending on how soon you think organ printing will become a reality. Even if the first fully-functional printed organs are still 25 years away (but who really knows with technology— it may be more like 10 years), the possible moral, ethical, socioeconomic, and even environmental implications are staggering.
Why? Because organ printing technology won’t end at just a few printed organs here and there. If it really works, we may draw that much closer to reinventing the very definition of life itself and testing the sustainability limits of our planet.
Hyperbole? Yes—definitely over the short term. But over the longer term? Consider just the possible implications of organ printing —this development alone will be extraordinarily impactful. What kinds of changes are ahead if we are someday able to simply replace diseased, damaged or failing organs instead of living shortened lives, or dealing with chronic and debilitating long-term illnesses, treatments and limitations? Reduced long-term medical costs? Higher productivity? Markedly higher quality of life?
We can do transplants now, of course, but the availability of organs, the complexity of transplant operations, and the rejection rates involved keep these procedures from being more commonplace. What happens when we remove these brakes and the scale and availability of transplant operations increases dramatically? Will we get to the point where cancer, disability, injury, and even old age become a fraction of the peril they are today and have been throughout human history? And will medical science be up to the challenge? Is transplant science going to advance enough to keep pace with the inevitable demand? And what about brain science? If restoring organ life after organ death is going to be possible, then preserving brain life will be key and more research and development will be needed in this area. Until we can learn to print brains as well (or grow them).
What about the minor socioeconomic impacts? Will an “organ gap” develop between those who can afford to extend life and those who can’t? Will insurers draw a line drawn between “emergency” use and quality-of-life or even “off-label” vanity use? And how will vanity use develop—from buying better brand-name body parts to assessing the legality of their use in society (what athlete wouldn’t want to have Nike brand lungs, after all)? And who will own these custom body parts? Will they have warranties attached?
What about the ethical questions? What if a very elderly person wants to extend their life for another 50 years? Do we print them a new set of organs—heart, eyes, kidneys? Why not? In fact, as technology continues to progress, what happens if we start printing entire living creatures? Combined with recent ideas about uploading new information directly into the brain, can we contemplate a day in the not-so-distant future where we are capable of simply printing humans and providing them with starter set of information to compensate for their time not spent in the womb—Womb 101?
Would we just print babies or older humans as well? Would the humans we print belong to a different class of humans (for instance, the religiously inclined might worry that these are humans with no soul or a lesser connection to the divine). Would they be “copyrightable” humans with designer parts?
And back to the question of the elderly, as long as we’re doing all this body printing, will we just print new bodies and switch into them when they wear out (or when we want to change)? Or reverse death by printing the body of a deceased loved one and uploading their knowledge and life experience into it (providing their brain had been backed up first, which will become standard operating procedure as we move into the brain implant era)?
And if all this comes to pass, just imagine the major socioeconomic questions: What happens to our concepts and structures of retirement, disability care, Social Security, and so on? What happens to our concept of “family” as we get 10 generations living at once, half of whom came from catalogs and printers? What happens to our planet as our global population surges markedly, we use more power and water and cause more global warming, and our food supply proves inadequate (although printing may also help address our food needs)? What happens to our expectations about the limits of human potential and performance? What happens to the quest for medical science to find cures, when simply replacing damaged parts becomes more effective? Are there even military implications? Would we print soldiers? Would countries print entire armies to fight one another?
This is just fantasy talk, obviously, especially since “trajectories” in technology don’t move in straight lines. But it is interesting to consider in this general sense: Organ printing opens a vast slope of perils and possibilities. Immortality. An age where no one will need to die, or even be “born” in the traditional sense. An age where life might conceivably carry on forever, and anyone can be engineered or cloned, and then printed. And each one of these developments alone might fundamentally alter the very nature of our existence. Stay tuned.