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X-men vs. Bionic Women

By James M Heather, on 9 June 2011

Yesterday I attended talks touching on how we might use novel biological techniques to create and manipulate cellular life. Today’s talk was about how we might adjust and augment much larger life: us. X-men vs. Bionic Women is not the comic book battle it sounds, but a glimpse into how emerging technologies might be used and abused to alter aspects of human biology and activity.

The first perspective came from biomedical tissue engineer, Professor John Fisher, who is looking to address the problems of tomorrow. Not only is our population expanding, and increasingly aging at rates never seen before, but our current older generation has higher expectations from life than the older generations of yesteryear, which presents quite a few biomedical problems.

John and his team look at the problem of joint-replacement. Artificial joint replacement has worked wonders, but it’s not an ideal solution, and doesn’t actually restore complete natural functionality. Instead, tissue engineering can be used to generate scaffolds, which when inserted into the body promote the infiltration and growth of that individual’s own stem cells. These can then cover and assimilate the transplant recreating a new, living tissue, providing a working joint and a more natural means of attaining fifty years of active life, having completing the first fifty.

Barbara  Sahakian was up next, sharing her expertise as a professor of clinical psychology. Building on the physical problems associated with an aging population, Barbara points out that cognitive disorders and disabilities will also increase. Thankfully, there are treatments for these as well, although their use raises some ethical questions.

No-one would begrudge someone suffering from a cognitive impairment or injury a drug that might restore their brain functions to normal. Such drugs exist, and can be highly effective. However, these same chemicals can be used by people who already have normal cognitive function to actually improve upon their natural capabilities.

Methylphenidate, or Ritalin (prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) not only improves the working memory of adults and children that suffer from ADHD, but also anyone else that feels like taking it. Many do; ‘Vitamin R’ is being taken by up to 20% of college students in some American universities to help study for exams. Similarly, modafinil (prescribed for narcolepsy) increases an individual’s abilities in planning and problem solving, and is mostly being bought off-label for use by healthy individuals, to cope with everything from jetlag to a busy work schedule.

Luckily, bioethicist Andy Miah is on hand once again, to treat us to a breakdown of the pertinent questions raised by practices such as these. He talks us through the categories of human enhancement, from those that are accepted socially already (such as vaccination or water fluoridation), through those of contested value (cosmetic surgery), all the way to the transhuman, which starts at using laser-eye surgery to produce vision better than naturally possible, into the realms of the improbable and the impossible.

He raises many good points. Should we be doing this? If not, why not? What constitutes a ‘normal’ human in the first place? Who gets to draw the line to say what is allowed and what is not?

It seems that there are many human modifications which are nearly – if not already – technically possible, but aren’t yet financially or culturally feasible for most. However, there will always be people who want to push the limits and go outside the norms; there may not be X-men or bionic women around yet, but I don’t doubt we’re too far off.

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