All transplants great and small

By Robert Hickson 01/03/2015


In the last few weeks reports have appeared that span the spectrum of bodily transplants: organelle, cellular,  faecal, and full body (or head) transplants. I noted others in a post last year. Seems like we can swap just about everything now.

The full body transplant is pure hype. It seems unlikely to happen for decades, let alone within the promised two years.  And, as the Guardian notes, aside from the biological and technical challenges there are psychological and social challenges. Some people come to hate their other transplanted appendages and have them removed.  The psychological effects of face transplants aren’t yet clear. Opting to amputate your donor body isn’t going to be a medical option.

Another transplant challenge is finding suitable parts. It’s hard enough finding donors for cornea’s and hearts. Donating a full healthy body, sans head, is likely to be a greater challenge. And what about the social economics? The organs from one person can be used to save or improve several other people’s lives.

The mitochondrial transplant isn’t technologically that new, similar techniques having been used on non-humans for many years. It’s the ethical approval for human’s that’s the news. There are likely to be plenty more of these types of ethical discussions over the next decade as medical technologies get more precise and complex.

The third type of transplant may be one of the ways of the future; grow it don’t graft it. As with the impetus for 3D printing, why seek spare parts from a supplier when you could create them yourself?

The pancreatic cell capsule (to treat type I diabetes) is one of the few stem cell trials underway.  It differs from Living Cell Technology’s more established Diabecell because it uses human embryonic stem cells rather than pig pancreatic cells.

A self-grown heart is also in the works.

Then there are the growing number of electronic prosthetics (see here too) that are likely to be used alongside biological treatments.

The faecal transplants, if they develop into a more rigorous experimental programme, also sit on this “biohacking” trajectory. Whether we’ll have to take account of microbial interactions for good health elsewhere in our body remains to be seen. We are each our own little ecosystem, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

However, not all of our biological misfortunes are treatable by technologies. So we shouldn’t expect to view ourselves or our loved ones like Lego, able to swap our bits and pieces at will. Even if we could, we are more than the sum of our parts.