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1/3/2015
07:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Pardon Me, Is That A Nose On Your Arm?

Do we really need to grow replacement noses on arms and foreheads and other bizarre places? With 3D printing we could just order replacement body parts from Amazon.



There's an old joke that's in danger of becoming extinct. It goes: "I have a dog with no nose." The other person exclaims, "No nose? How does he smell?" The punchline: "Awful." Soon, no one, not even dogs in bad jokes, will have to go without noses or other parts because stem cell research is growing noses and using nasal cells to help the body heal elsewhere.

In the last year or two, scientists have shown success in multiple ways at regrowing noses. The first news came from England where stem cells were used to regrow a man's nose on his arm. The man was losing his nose to skin cancer. Doctors made a mold of the nose and grew a new one in the mold using stem cells. Three months later the man had a new nose (which, sadly, regulators have not yet allowed him to use).

Shortly after this came news from China where doctors regrew a man's nose on his forehead.

It's a little bizarre, sure. I bet these guys would rather have a nose in the traditional place for no other reason than finding a shirt that's "breathable" must be difficult. On the other hand, having no nose at all is both a cosmetic problem and a health issue. You'd probably be willing to grow a nose anywhere it took to have one again, too.

Recently, the same scientists who grew the arm nose have been able to grow noses, ears, and other small organs in the laboratory. They've implanted windpipes and tear ducts, but they're still waiting for regulatory approval to attach the nose.

[AI isn't evil. We need it. Read 10 Threats Worse Than Artificial Intelligence.]

Assuming it all works, it's great news for victims of violence, soldiers, and others who have suffered facial injuries.

The nose is at the center, so to speak, of stem cell research in general. Stem cells from the nose have been used to repair other parts of the body. Nasal stem cells have been used to cure spinal injuries and Parkinson's Disease, for instance.

Why nasal stem cells? They are easier to harvest and less controversial than embryonic stem cells. They are literally the leftovers we throw away after sinus surgery. Adult stem cells like those from the nose (and from fat and blood and other locations) can replicate themselves.

There is a downside, though. Stem cell research, while amazing, still has some unknown long-term effects that require further study. For instance, a woman who was implanted with nasal stem cells eight years ago in an attempt cure her spinal injury not only did not recover from her injuries, but she discovered a mass growing in her back. When doctors removed the mass they found it was a nose. Not a complete nose, but enough of one to produce mucous.

On the bright side, 11 of the doctors' 20 patients showed improved mobility and feeling in their lower extremities after the nasal stem cell therapy.

Unfortunate situations like the nose on the back call into question whether we even need bodies to grow stem cells. Maybe we should choose 3D printing instead. Printed noses -- and other organs such as kidneys and livers -- are quite amazing. These organs also require stem cells but are built as whole units outside of the body, meaning they are less likely to produce unexpected body parts.

3D printing just might make stem cell research more palatable to regulators and those who are uncomfortable with stem cell therapies for religious or philosophical reasons. By combining the two we might reach the point where we can print and grow our own replacement parts just like we machine a new transmission for a model T.

Your next nose might come from a factory, fully grown, in a box shipped to you by Amazon and attached by your local surgeon. You might even grow a whole new face for yourself if you don't want to look like you anymore. And that might just be what you want to do, because if we can machine replacement parts, we're probably going to live a long time. We might want a change of face after a few centuries. You might get tired of looking at yourself in a mirror.

What do you think? Will we see the day of 3D-printed replacement body parts? How does your dog smell? Sound off in the Comments section.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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