Bionic organs viable alternative

On Tuesday morning, a very sad and unfortunate thing happened.

Broadway, and the rest of the world, lost Robert Goulet to pulmonary fibrosis- a disease that replaces the air sacs of the lung with fibrotic tissue. According to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, “When the scar forms, the tissue becomes thicker causing an irreversible loss of the tissue’s ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream.” It is still unknown what causes this disease. When it strikes someone, the only cure is a new lung.

Sadly, that is exactly how Goulet died – waiting for a new lung. He was 73 and will be remembered as the “American Baritone from Canada,” a nickname given to him by TV host Ed Sullivan which continues to live on through his wife, Vera Goulet.

Although Goulet’s spirit will live on through his memorable moments on the stage and the screen – I will never forget the Emerald Nuts commercial – it saddens me that he could have lived if he’d gotten the lung he needed. The tragedy also rekindles debate about bionic organs and furthers the case for their development.

Consider that Goulet died waiting for a lung transplant when the very nature of his disease required that he be treated immediately. Pulmonary fibrosis is a fast-moving and deadly disease – he only lived one month after he was diagnosed.

The lung transplant list­ – a wait-list for those who need lungs – is computer-generated and ranks people “based on certain requirements, including immune markers that match the donor, lung size, length of time on the waiting list and proximity to the donor,” according to the American Lung Association. Listing is a complicated process, but even when these requirements are met, a lung still needs to become available.

In 2005, about 3,500 Americans were waiting for a lung transplant, but only about 1,000 people received them – about a quarter of those who needed it.

The shortage of organs is a touchy subject because it involves life and death. In most cases, a person can acquire an organ to continue their life only with the death of someone else. The American Lung Association encourages people to sign up on the organ donation list, and that’s a start – it’s very courageous to be an organ donor.

There may be a solution to this problem on the horizon.

Recently, there has been some development for bionic nerves in the United Kingdom at the University of Manchester. There, scientists changed fat tissue cells into nerve cells and plan to develop an artificial, or bionic, nerve that can bring damaged limbs and organs back to life, according to the Northwest Regional Development Agency’s Web site. These bionic nerves would be able to resuscitate damaged limbs from a terrible accident and give full functioning capabilities to organs after an organ transplant, re-growing new nerves and expanding upon old and damaged ones.

This is a giant leap toward the development of bionic organs. Of course, the development of bionic organs comes with controversy. The fear of a Terminator-like situation always looms ­- that robots would become too intelligent for humans and take over. Bionic organs, cells or limbs further blur the line between humans and technology.

If a bionic revolution occurred, would there be a certain percentage of body parts an individual must have in order to still be considered a human? If a person had a bionic lung, heart, legs, and arms. Would he still be a person? The patient might be reclassified as machinery.

Bionic organs, limbs and nerves won’t lead to a humanoid race that destroys those who are still more than 50 percent human. The difference between a human and a robot is emotion. A robot cannot emote – it can look sad and act sad, but it cannot be sad. A robot also cannot have a soul, which is where I believe human emotion originates.

As for Goulet, we will never know if a human lung or a bionic lung could have saved him. I wonder what the world will be like without him, but I am thankful for the memories and performances he has left behind.

Amy Mariani is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.