Regenerating our future

6771085055_0002430e17_oRobert A Heinlein’s predictions for the year 2000 make fascinating reading. Written in 1952 he was spot on with some and way off with others. His contemporaries might have thought the suggestion that people would have had personal phones they could fit in a handbag and home phones that could take messages far less likely than cures for cancer, the common cold and tooth decay. After all, the latter have been major focuses of research for decades, but have proved trickier than anyone thought. He also predicted that the next frontier in medical research, after the year 2000, would be regrowing lost or damaged limbs and organs. In 1966 he updated this with the comment that, in the meantime, we have transplants.

That next frontier is getting closer. The University of Michigan is investigating using stem cells to regrow teeth. A team in Madrid has a stripped down human heart that they are working on. Lab-grown bladders, tear-ducts and noses have been transplanted into people.

Teeth are slightly different. We all carry the mechanisms necessary to grow teeth, as the ones we use as adults are not the ones we were born with. They are also things we can manage without. A tooth can be grown in your mouth, and, while, it is growing but not fully developed, you will be fine. A heart has to be grown in the lab and then inserted only when it is fully functional, because your old heart cannot be removed until the new one is ready. Lab-grown hearts may turn out to be better than transplanted or artificial ones, but this is not necessarily so, and the need for major transplant surgery is not averted.

Kidneys are different again. We have two. If one is diseased it may be possible to grow a wholly healthy one while the patient manages with just one, or on dialysis. If the patient has lost the use of both kidneys a donor kidney could still be used but then, both patient and donor could grow new ones.

But what about lost limbs? Will it ever be possible to regrow limbs as lizards and other reptiles do? Thus far, artificial limbs are a very poor substitute. They have no system of muscles and are not hardwired to the brain. Of course, science fiction has speculated that artificial limbs might one day surpass the original. Does anyone remember The Six Million Dollar Man? (The spin-off series, The Bionic Woman, was recently re-set with a new cast). In reality, might there be more future in regenerating lost limbs than in building new ones?

Certainly, the regeneration of lost limbs and organs is much closer to another of Heinlein’s passions, life extension. What if we could halt or reverse the aging process? This is surely medicine’s final frontier. With greater age, all conditions become riskier. But what if people did not age? That would be a major challenge to our whole economy and society.

Heinlein also predicted that contraception and disease control would pose enormous challenges. He was right. They have rewritten the rules of sexual behavior and the relationships between men and women. He was one of those who, wrongly, believed that “overpopulation” would pose a problem and that we would run out of food. But if people do not age, yet continue to breed, can food production keep up?

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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