Making replacement organs

Artificial kidney

Source: © Hitandrun @ Début Art

From iron lungs to smartphone-controlled insulin pumps, Clare Sansom looks at the efforts to create artificial organs

About 10% of the NHS budget is spent on treating just one disease: diabetes. What if the complex behaviour of the pancreas could be mimicked by a machine: an artificial organ? The little machines – a glucose monitor and insulin pump – are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term artificial organ, however. You are more likely to think of an implanted electronic device, and perhaps of the idea, still restricted to science fiction, of the bionic man. But extracorporeal devices, worn outside the body like this one, have major advantages. They are more accessible than implanted ones, and therefore easier to repair or replace.

The first such machine to have a claim on the term artificial organ is probably the iron lung, a mechanical ventilator that kept paralysed polio victims alive, sometimes for years, in the early part of the 20th century. However, these patients remained paralysed and immobilised inside the machines, with very low quality of life. The first insulin pumps, too, were very large. The trend throughout the decades has been towards smaller, smarter devices that replicate necessary physiological function and are small enough to give patients a relatively normal life.