Women Outside, Fall 1998
What's a mad scientist to do with herself these days? She can go legit in the high-tech artificial body parts business. Already, researchers have begun crafting shin bones from coral, hearts from rare metals, and faux skin from the tendons of cows. The industry of alchemically creating new organs and bones is booming and the most resourceful — or hubristic — bioengineers even claim to have improved upon the original designs. Mother Nature, after all, is only human.
The Bi-Angular Bi-Polar Shoulder is a titanium mechanism that apes the joint's full-circle rotation using an Escher-like system: a ball inside a socket inside another socket. Richard Worland, a joint-replacement surgeon in Richmond, Virginia, created this contraption after his own football-injured shoulder began to deteriorate. The damaged joint comes out, says Worland, and "we use power equipment and reamers to bore a hole in the humerus and press the new one in."
Coral Replacement Bone
Bad bone breaks are an occupational hazard for athletes. Just ask Picabo Street. But until now, fixing them has been largely a matter of casts, pins, and prayer. Enter Pro Osteon coral bone filler. Confected by Irvine, California-based Interpore International from dead coral, which is made of virtually the same minerals as bone, the sterilized "porite" can plug gaps left by severe breaks. Blood vessels in the bone eventually snake into the coral skeleton's pores and, voilÇ, you're part reef.
Artificial noses, used by scores of industries and government agencies to test products, are generally the size of home entertainment centers and cost about $50,000. But Cyrano Sciences Inc. in Pasadena has developed a fake proboscis that, it promises, will be little bigger than a cell phone and only $5,000. The Cyrano nose can detect everything from baking bread to smoke to infection (bacteria stink). A little tube sucks in air; the snout evaluates it for smells you've programmed in, displaying its findings on a tiny screen. Don't let people around you see the results. Actually, they probably already know.
Electrical Heart Pump
Country music's greatest nightmare: a heart that won't break. Impervious, too, to age and triglycerides is the Ontario-based World Heart Organization's HeartSaver. A minuscule 500-gram vessel made of titanium and polyurethane, it's stitched to your ticker, cranking out a steady heartbeat thanks to a belt-hung battery pack and two metal coils that transfer electricity to the pump right through the skin. Most users are cardiac patients, but HeartSaver's developer, surgeon Tofy Mussivand, sees them as athletes in waiting. "People using this could conceivably run marathons," he says. "Unlike your heart, it'll never get tired."
Frankenstein science at its best, Integra artificial skin is a two-layer membrane system, one made of cow tendons and shark tissue, the other of silicone. Used on burn patients, Integra (made by a Plainsboro, New Jersey, company of the same name) allows the deepest layers of skin to regenerate; no more agonizing bandage-changing. Anyone who's suffered road rash will be pleased to know that FDA approval for cosmetic use is expected by century's end.
Twice as strong as human muscle and with a more glossy sheen. The Artificial Muscle Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, bakes synthetic silk for five hours, then boils it in sodium hydroxide to make a polymer-gel artificial muscle. Still awaiting F.D.A. approval, the muscle could conceivably be grafted onto bone or sewn into garments that will stretch and contract when electrical charges are applied. It may soon replace damaged or paralyzed tissue, and be stitched into undies that help astronauts move bulky space suits.