The 21st century is less than a dozen years away. The "future" that people have talked about for years is just around the bend.
One of the visions of that future has centered on a "bionic man" - science's ability to replace defunct body parts with man-made spares that function closely enough to the original to be acceptable.How close are scientists to that goal?
In some areas, the future is here. Researchers are surprisingly close in other areas, but only on the fringes in yet others.
Utah is making a significant imprint on the bionic man of the future. The state has gathered and created expertise that is recognized worldwide in many scientific areas.
Researchers at the University of Utah, LDS Hospital, Salt Lake Veterans Administration Medical Center and other institutions are or have been involved in major projects that hold promise of adding to the parts-replacement potential.
They include - but are not limited to - the artificial heart, artificial ear, artificial eye, artificial lung, artificial blood, artificial blood vessels and other "tube" structures, artificial joints, artificial Fallopian tubes, artificial limbs, artificial kidney and artificial pancreas.
Utah began building strong bioengineering programs in the 1950s and 1960s. One of Utah's strengths has been cooperation among a great variety of disciplines toward common objectives, said Dr. Don B. Olsen, director of the U.'s Institute for Biomedical Engineering.
Materials that can be implanted in the body are being developed at the same time actual devices are evolving.
Some functions of the human body are more easily replicated than others. Some still are so poorly understood that attempting to duplicate them is premature.
Dr. Stephen C. Jacobsen, for instance, took a look at the human hand and immediately recognized formidable challenges in attempting to replicate that mechanical marvel.
Jacobsen's group at the U. has begun a detailed study of the hand, possibly as a preliminary step toward a bionic replacement. The center's Utah Arm is already in use throughout the world.
Some body organs and fluids, including the liver and blood, are so complex that artificial replacement may be beyond the 21st century, although some particular functions may be amenable to duplication. Fluorocarbon-based fluids that can carry oxygen have been tried on a limited basis and may ultimately be a feasible emergency replacement for blood.
The costs of replacing impaired body parts are tremendous. The "Six Million Dollar Man" would, in fact, be cheap.
Part of the challenge of the future will be finding ways to take technology from "possible" to "feasible." Unless that challenge is met, the work of science may be held hostage to economics.