Growing “naughty bits” in the lab

By Robert Hickson 08/10/2014

Biology has truly started conjugating with engineering now. All sorts of food and body parts are now being generated in the lab.

While genetically modified crops and farm animals make the headlines, and raise concerns about environmental impacts, food safety, and ethics, there is a quieter synthetic biology revolution going on in labs.

Synthetic biology is being used in attempts to produce “animal-free” milk products,  as well as  replacements for some plant flavourings, and algal substitutes  .

There are also chemical and physical, as opposed to biological, ways to create animal product food replacements.

Synthetic meat has survived a taste test, though it’s a long way from economic viability and general consumer acceptability.

But the headline that, understandably, attracted my attention this week was “The lab-grown penis” .

As the Guardian (or rather it’s sister paper, The Observer) notes

 “[this] work would fulfil a real need for men who have lost their penis through genital defects, traumatic injury, surgery for aggressive penile cancer, or even jilted lovers exacting revenge.”

As you’d expect, there isn’t much enthusiasm, or success, in transplanting donated penises.

Previous research has resulted in some male rabbits with bioengineered penises produce offspring. Anthony Atala, the scientist behind the research, hopes to undertake a human transplant within five years.

The Guardian article helpfully points out that bioengineered bladders and vaginas have previously been created, and some successfully transplanted.

Coincidentally, this past week there was also a report of a Swedish woman who had a transplanted womb (from a donor not a culture flask) successfully (if prematurely) gave birth. So transplants are becoming ever more sophisticated (I noted in an earlier post that a few folk have an interest in eventually being able to do brain transplants).

Retinal cells are being printed, though not yet transplanted. As are parts of kidneys.

Lungs have also been grown, and attempts are underway to grow a heart in vitro.

Eventually these developments (if successful) will mean that more people will probably be able to live more active, fulfilling and longer lives.

Combine these synthetic tissues and organs with gene therapy, bionic prosthetics, wearable implants, and cognition-enhancing drugs. What will societal attitudes be to what is natural or even human? A range of transplants and implants are already widely accepted. As with blood transfusions, some people will probably have religious or ethical objections to some. But many others may start to feel that the term “natural” (and that will likely be defined in various ways) with respect to our bodies and abilities becomes less and less relevant or meaningful.

It’s not our constituent parts but the whole that is important.


As an aside, but connecting to another technology trend. One factor driving the creation of bioengineered organs is their potential (if the recipients own cells are used) is to reduce the chance of rejection. As populations come to have more older people the demand for transplants also rises, and there are not enough donors now to meet existing demands.

This could also be exacerbated in some countries if autonomous vehicles become common – that could further reduce the number of organ donors  If the US ever tightens up gun control that is likely to have a much more dramatic effect, since more donated organs come from homicide victims than car fatalities.

In NZ the autonomous vehicle effect may be significant. We have a low rate of organ donation, and while relatively few organ donations come from vehicle fatalities, even a small decrease in vehicle deaths could make sourcing suitable organs more difficult if more people don’t start opting in for donation.