Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG - As part of the continuing discussion on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), I delved into the fascinating world of biomedical engineering, gene editing and the drive for human perfection in the Tech News column of last week.

It is precisely through the quest of scientists for human perfection that bioengineers made some incredible advances in the field of biomedical technology.

While 3D printing is nothing new, the printing of living tissues and organs in a lab to solve the increasing demand for organ transplants fills us with wonderment.

Scientists succeeded in creating a skeleton structure that represents the structure of the human organ and then printed living cells on to it to grow into the organ structure. After the growth the organ can be implanted into the human body.

Some human organs are very complex and pose many challenges to overcome. However, biomedical engineers are already making significant progress in this field, such as Dr Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) in the US.

The WFIRM grows tissues and organs for more than 40 different areas of the body, from kidneys to skin. Already in 2006, Dr Atala and his team were the first to successfully transplant bioprinted bladders into young people suffering from poor bladder function.

New research at WFIRM includes innovative wound healing through the use of a bedside 3D skin printer. They also focus on the bioprinting of kidneys that are in high demand, but the work is still far from complete.

In April 2019 researchers from Tel Aviv University for the first time 3D printed an entire heart with cells, blood vessels and chambers, albeit the size of a rabbit heart.

More recently, Professor Adam Feinberg and his team from Carnegie Mellon University developed a new 3D bioprinting method to allow them to print with collagen, which makes up every single tissue in the human body. This brings the field of tissue engineering much closer to printing a full-sized, adult human heart and should be good news for the thousands of people anxiously waiting on a hart to be transplanted.

Another fast advancing area of bioengineering is popularly referred to as “wearable technology”.

Ever since Dune - the sci-fi classic of 1984 - featured the “stillsuit” that kept the wearer cool and hydrated in the hottest planetary climate, scientists tried to create a personal heating and cooling system that can respond to changes in ambient temperature, as well as the body temperature of the wearer.

Now scientists at the University of Maryland, College Park, under the leadership of professors YuHuang Wang and Ouyang Min, developed according to them the first textile that automatically changes its structure in response to external conditions. This self-regulating fabric was made from infrared-sensitive yarn that has the ability to react to temperature and humidity.

When the microenvironment between the person's skin and fabric changes, the strands tighten and create gaps in the yarn to release more heat or they expand to keep the heat inside.

The yarn’s ability to respond to ambient temperature and humidity comes from the coating of the polymer fibres with a thin layer of carbon nanotubes. The researchers reported that the adaptive textile is capable of altering the heat radiation by more than 35percent.

Intelligent textile fabrics that react to environmental stimuli may just mean the end of layering - well, at least if you can afford it!

Intelligent fabrics will also become essential as we increasingly experience the results of global warming signalled by the record temperatures of the past few seasons.

It is calculated that by regulating the temperature on an individual level via smart clothing, buildings using air-conditioning or heating systems could reduce energy usage by up to 15percent.

Another innovative field of bioengineering is transdermal patches. A leading expert in this field is Professor Chen Peng from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

In December 2017 he and his team announced the use of specially designed transdermal patches to tackle Singapore’s growing obesity epidemic. By loading the patches with anti-obesity compounds normally administered through injection or orally, they were able to transform energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat in laboratory mice.

Brown fat is found in babies and is burned to keep the baby warm. Unfortunately, as humans become older, the amount of brown fat lessens and is replaced with visceral white fat.

When the hundreds of micro needles - with a diameter of less than that of a human hair - loaded with anti-obesity agents are pressed against the skin for two minutes, the needles become embedded in the skin, dissolve and the agent is slowly released into the energy-storing white fat underneath the skin layer.

Within about five days the white fat is turned into energy-burning brown fat.

Over a period of four weeks the fat mass of the mice decreased by 30 percent, weight gain was reduced, and the mice had lower blood cholesterol and fatty acids.

We will certainly see many more life changing breakthroughs in bioengineering.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist [email protected]