Every time when a heart attack occurs, millions of heart muscle cells will be lost. These cells are never regrown. So, even if the patient survived the cardiac episode, they often suffer from serious health consequences. A bioengineering research team from Duke University believes they can turn the situation around by replacing these forever absent cells with an artificial heart muscle patch

Thus far, experiments in rodents showed that blood vessels from the heart are able to be expanded into this patch to keep it alive. In near future, shall this poker size, stem-cells generated patch be approved to use on human, researchers are confident of its capability to deliver a closer match to the cell types and architecture of the patients’ organs. 

Where is the line? 

Eventually, if it’s successful, the patch will model present-day contact lenses or cochlear implant, assisting individuals to live healthily again. Using technology to regain a part of body function is not something new. 

We have discussed the possibilities of brain-computer interface (BCI) to render speech back to patients with neurological disorders. Earlier, there had also been BCI research which promised patients to control their prosthetic limbs directly from their nervous systems. Last year, three paralyzed individuals were able to walk independently again via spinal implants that promote signals between the brain and legs and also help in re-growing damaged nerves. 

Apart from these relatively permanent changes that can possibly take place in human bodies, there are also external structures which provide temporary enhancement. For example, gait-training exoskeleton suit which support individuals with complete paralysis or limited forearm potency to stand and walk. 

Although the above enhancement adds values to patients’ lives, the ethical line is often drawn whether these changes also transform patients into someone else. Human enhancement has brought out the question of “human-ness” or what makes us human.

Ethical guidelines 

Presently, there is an absent of a single set of ethical guidelines which encompass all forms of enhancement. The tendency to blur moral and ethics means medical professionals may find themselves trapped: while it’s morally correct to better patients’ wellbeing through artificial enhancement, it may be ethically wrong to do so. 

Augmenting parts of our bodies also touch on the idea of being “more than well”, or having non-patient choosing a particular form of enhancement. Such as choosing to wear contact lenses for aesthetic purpose. Besides, some of these enhancement projects are co-developed by private companies and medical institutions. Ultimately, who should govern or be liable that an individual, has the right to enhance a part of their bodies. 

Will it be another case of medical cannabis, in which individuals who thought they ought to be medicated with marijuana are not given the treatment. At the same time, the government is struggling to come up with a sound guideline to prevent people from abusing it. Innovations always move a lot faster than the regulatory framework, so it’s never too early to start a debate. 

More articles can be found on AIMed Blog.

Author Bio
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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in current affair, culture and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.