Could Robots with Human Flesh Revolutionize Regenerative Medicine?
In the future, androids could grow skin grafts for transplants.
Might robots one day wear human skin? That's what researchers Pierre-Alexis Mouthuy and Andrew Carr have proposed in a recent paper published in Science Robotics, arguing that mechanical humanoids would be ideal structures on which to grow tissue grafts for transplant.
Why grow robot skin?
Normally, cells for tissue grafts are cultivated in tanks called “bioreactors,” which mimic the chemical environment and mechanical forces of human physiology. Using this method scientists have successfully engineered skin, bone, cartilage, and even more complex organs, such as miniature brains and, in one experiment, a beating heart in a jar.
The problem is that current bioreactors can't subject engineered tissues to realistic stresses. Real tissue has to stretch and move, withstanding structural forces specific to its physiological environment. So what if that tissue was developed on a humanoid musculature and skeleton instead?
There are already robots whose internal structures mimic those of humans, allowing them to replicate human movements. For example, Kenshiro, created by researchers at the University of Tokyo, incorporates a network of motorized pulleys to mirror human physiology; whereas Eccerobot, the mechanical lovechild of a consortium of European engineers, uses strings and elastic cords to simulate the interplay of muscles and tendons.
According to Mouthuy and Carr, using such humanoids as bioreactors could improve the quality of engineered tissue and allow for the personalization of tissue grafts. Eventually, we could have our deteriorating body parts replaced using tissue grown on a robot customized to our individual anatomies. With their motorized muscles replaced with cell-based actuators, these robots could even become what the researchers call the first “biohybrid humanoids”.
Given the explosive projections for the robotics industry, could the growth of artificial tissue one day extend to sex robots? As Future of Sex has reported, a number of companies are racing to create the most humanlike robotic lovers possible. Could developers one day succeed in making sex robots feel as real as a human partner? Currently, a measure of tactile realism in love dolls is given by internal heating mechanisms that warm the doll's surface. But this isn't the same as the real thing.
In theory, tissues grown using robots might even include complex organs. Researchers are making impressive headway in using donor cells to engineer organs in laboratories. In 2006, Anthony Athala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, succeeded in creating and implanting artificial bladders.
A few years later he successfully transplanted laboratory-grown penises onto rabbits, and artificial vaginas into humans. He claims that the ability to engineer and attach human penises is just around the corner. While successful penis transplants have been conducted before, growing organs from a patient's own cells avoids the necessity and complications of anti-rejection drugs.
These developments raise an interesting prospect. Could humanoid robots one day provide an ideal scaffolding for the cultivation of reproductive organs? If so, will they be functional before transplant? Using an artificial womb, could a robot one day gestate a human fetus?
In light of recent developments in both robotics and tissue engineering, we might not be so far off from finding out.