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Medicine and the 'immortality industry'

'We don't have an Ayatollah of Ethics in the United States'

Georgia Tech researchers work on developing an artificial heart valve.
Georgia Tech researchers work on developing an artificial heart valve.  


By Rhonda Rowland
CNN

(CNN) -- Artificial body parts were once the stuff of science fiction, but an entire industry -- dubbed the immortality industry -- has developed around the effort to make them science fact.

Scientists believe many of the human body parts that wear out eventually can be replaced, extending and dramatically altering the lives of people who are desperately ill.

Researchers at Aimed, a Massachusetts company, developed the Boor artificial heart, which has been implanted into six men. Although only three of those men have survived, the heart has kept all of the patients alive for longer than expected.

Other doctors are developing a less-radical device -- a kind of booster pump -- to assist damaged hearts. Hundreds of people have already benefited from the technology.

"They're clearly going to be the future and we think we're on the breaking point, where you'll see them much more commonly, like you see pacemakers today," says Dr. Patrick McCarthy of the Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic.

Technical issues, ethical matters

A kind of booster pump to assist blood flow is a less radical device than an artificial heart.
A kind of booster pump to assist blood flow is a less radical device than an artificial heart.  

Hearts aren't the only organs being replicated in the laboratory. Artificial blood is being tested in humans, as is an artificial liver.

But ethicists warn the push for high-tech solutions to some medical problems could come at a high price.

"If it was customary for human beings through these interventions to live to 110, 120 years old, what is that going to mean to the Social Security Trust Fund, what's that going to mean to Medicare or our pension plans?" asks John Banja of Emory University's Center for Ethics.

And if the industry is immortality, is the business plan to play God?

"I don't think that anybody believes that by giving somebody penicillin we're playing God," says Jeffrey Kahn of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, "but we have to ask the question about how far it's appropriate to go in extending life."

And then there's the cost. Is it enough to extend life by a matter of months, at a cost of thousands of dollars?

"All of these things are philosophically good to talk about until it's your husband or your wife or your child, and then it's different," says Dr. Bud Frazier, a heart surgeon at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. Frazier's frustration at not being able to save some patients because the technology wasn't available led him to participate in trials of the artificial heart.

But making the decisions could be difficult, and in the end it could boil down to money -- who wants the designer parts and who can afford them.

"We don't have an Ayatollah of Ethics in the United States," says Banja.



 
 
 
 


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