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Biomedical Research

Artificial Organs: A Social and Ethical Analysis

Artificial organs are becoming a common form of technology that relies on methods such as 3-D printing and stem cell implementation. While these organs may seem ideal to patients in need, taking a deeper look into these life-savers reveals a much more complex reality.

The Problem

Artificial organs are a recent form of life saving technology that rely on methods such as 3-D printing and stem cell implementation, which are becoming more common in the medical community as automation advances. Lately, scientists have been putting in a lot of research and resources into the development of these artificial organs, particularly as a result of  the significant imbalance between those in need of organs and those who are actually receiving them. In 2015, about 121,000 people needed an organ transplant, but only about 31,000 patients received one (Figure 1).

Patients that Received Organs (blue) vs. Patients in Need (grey)

     Figure 1, Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, 2015

This gap is a huge problem; people with failing organs do not have much time to spare.  According to the Nation Health Resources and Services Organization, about 20 people die on average per day because of a lack of viable organs for transplant. As a result, artificial organs have become especially important, as they provide other means for people to obtain the organs that they require.  

A Societal Perspective

The wait for essential organs is absurd and inhumane. In fact, it can generally take up to five years to get off the waitlist for a transplant, which can cost a human life. Consequently, some find it necessary to resort to unconventional ways to get what they need. As expressed by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley,  the extensive wait for these organs often motivates people to take the state of their lives into their own hands. In this instance, they become willing to travel long and far to obtain organs that they receive through channels of legal or illegal means. These distances are often foreign countries, with the most popular destination being India.

With the implementation of biomedically engineered artificial organs, these desperate patients will no longer need to put themselves and even their families in jeopardy to live. This way, the patients are able to receive the organs that will save their lives in a legal way without the trouble of traveling in their unfortunate conditions. With new and improved organs, not only will people have a better quality of life, but they’ll be able to contribute to society in ways that may not have been possible for them before.

The Ethical Dilemma

While these organs may seem like a perfect solution, there are some serious ethical consequences that arise as a result of increased implementation. A main issue that will accompany the spread of these high-tech organs is their large cost. As shown in Figure 2, the cost of procedures that implement artificial body parts such as hips and knees are already what many would consider high, with a simple ear tube procedure costing up to $4,500. 

The Cost and Annual Revenue of the Artificial Organ Market

Figure 2

Considering these organs would only be available to those who could pay, it could be considered unvirtuous to allow them to become very widespread, as others that cannot afford these situations will be at a major disadvantage that could potentially decide their quality of life. Also, since one cannot control their health if they are on the verge of death, it becomes immoral to make these organs available to those that can afford the high expenses. 

Potential Solution

After evaluating this complex issue from multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that a solution is needed. Overall, in order to help solve the issue of organ scarcity whilst reducing the ethical implications, highly-demanded artificial organs should be implemented, however the complexity of their software should be reduced. The limitations of this solution, however, are that it takes extensive research and time in order to maintain the effectiveness of these organs while simultaneously reducing their complexity, and that the artificial organs being produced would only be available for those in need of major organs. Despite these drawbacks, the outlook for biomedically engineered artificial organs is exceptionally bright, and this market has the potential to save a myriad of lives that would otherwise be lost.

References

Hutchison, Katrina, and Robert Sparrow. 2016. “What Pacemakers Can Teach Us about the 

Ethics of Maintaining Artificial Organs.” Hastings Center Report 46 (6): 14–24. doi:10.1002/hast.644.

Malchesky, Paul S. 2011. “Organ Replacement, Medical Device Costs, and Medical 

Tourism: Globalization of the Clinical Application of Artificial Organ Technologies?” Artificial Organs 35 (12): 1139–41. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1594.2011.01396.x.

  “Organ Donation Statistics.” Organ Donor, September 30,  2019.     https://www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html

Sanjairaj, Vijayavenkataraman. (2016). “A Perspective on Bioprinting Ethics.” Artificial 

Organs. 40. 1033-38. 10.1111/aor.12873. 

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “The Global Traffic in Human Organs.” Current Anthropology 41, no. 2 (April 2000): 191–211. doi:10.2307/3596697.

Vermeulen, Niki & Haddow, Gillian & Seymour, Tirion & Faulkner-Jones, Alan & Shu, Wenmiao (Will). (2017). “3D bioprint me: A socioethical view of bioprinting human organs and tissues.  Journal of Medical Ethics. 43. medethics-2015. 10.1136/medethics-2015-103347.

Reem Hassoun, Youth Medical Journal 2020

By Reem Hassoun

Reem Hassoun is a student at Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Michigan. She is interested in the fields of neurology, public health, and biochemistry.

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