Beyond the Glass Eye

By Chad Galts / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
In the minds of science-fiction writers, the cutting edge of biological engineering can seem a little too sharp. In reality, though, the field has so far had more to do with pacemakers and artificial hips than with androids and cyborgs - until now.

The picture of bioengineering sketched by three Brown researchers during an early Saturday morning Commencement forum is still a long way from featuring artificial life forms. But how about cloned sheep, engineered skin, and manufactured organs you can hang from a belt loop? Michael Lysaght, an associate research professor of biomaterials, described his work on an artificial skin substitute made of fiberglass and collagen that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year. It can be dyed and textured to blend in with a patient's existing skin, offering hope to burn victims and skin-cancer patients.

Lysaght is also working on what may prove to be the first fully functional pancreas that works outside the body. Though still in development, the device, which is the size of a pack of cigarettes, has already demonstrated stunning potential: "Our results [show] that a cure for diabetes has been found - in mice," Lysaght said, "but there is a big difference between mice and large animals." Researchers are now testing the device on a dog.

Moses Goddard '79 M.D., an associate research professor of surgery, reported that he is nearing FDA approval for a product that may improve how medications are administered to sufferers of chronic pain. Instead of swallowing a daily barrage of pills or using hypodermic needles, Goddard proposed, such people could have a miniature biological factory implanted in their lower spinal columns. The device, which is the length of an adult middle finger and the width of an ink cartridge, delivers a steady dose of medication into the bloodstream. The tube has a delicately engineered "skin" that allows oxygen to pass while keeping out the immune-system antibodies that would normally attack such a foreign object. The device went through clinical trials in Rhode Island last year with what Goddard says were "truly promising results."

Robert Valentini '83, '93 M.D. Ph.D., the forum's third speaker and an assistant research professor of biomaterials and orthopedics, sketched the broad range of bioengineering research currently under way, from "playing with insect proteins" to creating Dolly, the infamous cloned sheep. Valentini and his colleagues emphasized that, thanks to recent advances in computer power and molecular biology, we are on the threshold of fully combining engineering's manmade materials with biology's manipulations of living tissue. The result, the researchers hope, will be to push forward what matters: the relief of human suffering.

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July / August 1998