Would you play God with tech?
We live in an age where it’s often easier to replace something than repair it. This includes mobile phones, cars and – in the not too distant future – possibly our organs.
As a self-confessed hypochondriac, finding out that 3D organ printing might be possible in our lifetime was the perfect marriage of two of my favourite things: tech and medicine.
In the Guardian last week Tim Lewis interviewed Cellink’s co-founder Erik Gatenholm. Cellink is a tech start-up that makes ink for 3D bioprinters – printers which could eventually print living tissue and potentially even organs.
It’s a big coup for an industry that’s predicted to be worth more than $1.3bn by 2021, but it could also have a massive impact in the way we view life and death.
“There’s enormous human benefit in bioprinting,” Gatenholm told Lewis. “You die because your organs break. That’s why you die.
“If we can start replacing them, maybe we can extend the human lifespan… That’s really neat!
“Replacement organs, it’s our lifetime.”
Genetic engineering and the ethics of new technologies are both well-worn concerns, but this is the first time I’ve actually felt like it was a question I might ever have to answer myself. As I was reading I asked myself, if the tech was there, would I actually do it?
The idea of it feels pretty weird – changing the length of my life and swapping out organs that had served me well just because I wanted to.
Having said that, 3D bioprinting could potentially be the best chance I’ve got of prolonging my life without making a deal with the devil or starting to exercise. So why did I feel weird about it?
It could be because we’re all still a bit uncomfortable when it comes to tech, so the thought of making it part of our vital organs unnecessarily feels wrong.
Maybe it’s because it does feel arrogant. Most of us either put our fate in the hands of God or genetics which are, for the most part, out of our control. Now we could add tech to that list.
For some people, these questions aren’t new ones. In 2015 the UK became the first country to approve ‘three parent’ children – a type of genetic engineering that stops babies from inheriting certain mitochondrial disorders, fuelling growing fears around 'designer babies'.
However the mitochondrial engineering – while still controversial – has a strong moral case through its potential to save and improve the lives of children.
Compared to that, it seems a bit indulgent to replace your liver so you can drink like a teenager again, or your heart so you can live a few more years.
If these are the kinds of questions we’re going to be faced with in our lifetime with then we need to be prepared for them. We need better tech and ethics education and to have people involved in the process that are able to talk to us about the possible outcomes – not just for bioprinting but in all areas of tech.
As the article rightly pointed out, once the tech is safe, the most important thing will be to make sure that it’s not so expensive that only the richest people can afford it.
After that, maybe we should just lean into it and enjoy the benefits that tech can bring. Better healthcare, diet and general quality of life means we live longer than people a hundred years ago, and this is just another form of progress.
Usually when it comes to tech and ethics the weight of these decisions is usually on tech companies, governments or scientists but it’s gotten to a point where we need to start looking a bit closer to home.
So, if you had the chance to replace an ageing organ with one that’s hot off the printer for a few extra years of life, would you?