September 30, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Will bioengineered body parts cost an arm and a leg?

Bionic arm dekaThe idea that we could bioengineer new human body parts to replace old, faulty ones is exciting, and such parts could include limbs, digits, or even entire organs. Such replacements might be produced using stem cells, 3-D printers, and other rapidly evolving, cutting edge technologies.

Sci-fi is becoming a reality.

Remember in Star Wars when Luke got that new bionic arm? When I first saw that as a kid in the movie theater I thought, “wow, that’s cool!”, and imagined what the future might hold. Then there was the 6 million dollar man TV show too.

In fact, the FDA recently approved a “Star Wars” bionic arm last year. It’s the DEKA bionic arm nicknamed “Luke” (pictured above, photo from DEKA).

Now in the next decade such an arm replacement might be entirely biological and maybe even made of your own cells. Or it could be a cyborg kind of thing that is part bio and part machine. Sound like sci-fi? Not so much any more. This stuff is coming in the next 10-20 years.

Thinking about entirely biological limb replacements and transplants of entire new engineered organs, we have to think about that pesky issue of cost.

If I want a new liver or kidney, for example, what would it cost? Would insurance pay to cover it? What about a new lower arm or leg? A new finger?

A very sophisticated arm prosthesis today is $50,000 and the Luke arm from DEKA will likely cost $100,000.

What about a biological replacement?

Cost estimates are hard to do with such fast-moving fields such as stem cells and bioengineering but to start with the first fields “models” a million or even multi-million dollar price tag does not seem out of the question. If this catches on, the price will drop a lot. Certainly, for organs essential for life the cost of chronic disease (liver, kidney, heart, lung, etc.) can easily add up into the millions of dollars so a healthy engineered replacement, even if pricey could still be a net cost saver and then if you throw in the improved quality of life, it could be a logical way to go.

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