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What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Segway”? Betcha it ain’t “human organ production.” But thanks to Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s next big idea, that may just be a commonplace connection.
That’s because Kamen and the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), a wide-reaching, well-funded consortium he started about four years ago after winning a Department of Defense (DoD) contract, are looking not just to produce much-needed organs (and ligaments and tendons and such), but to do so on a massive scale, akin to high-tech semiconductor assembly lines.
Granted, the timing of all that depends on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually approving lab-grown organs for transplant patients. But the DoD did already throw $80 million at Kamen’s project, with the hopes of having a steady supply of organs for soldiers injured in battle.
Regardless of how the legalities play out, Kamen, now 69, tells OneZero he believes ARMI will be able to produce “an organ or piece of organ” within the next 10 years, on the way to creating human organ factories.
While we’re still a ways off from such production, there’s no shortage of folks trying to create lab-grown organs that the body won’t reject, including some success stories. But Kamen seems to be more interested in building the machinery to allow organ growth to happen at scale. The very basic idea behind the science involves creating a scaffold of the body part in question, and then infusing it with the recipient’s own cells, so that the body will accept it.
As the scientists are working hard on figuring all that out, Kamen sees that there will be appreciable needs in bringing that work to scale. So he and his team are working on 3D bioprinters that “print living cells and produce organ scaffolds”; “bioreactors to grow and cultivate the stem cells that are eventually implanted on these scaffolds”; and “custom technology to measure and monitor in real time what’s happening with those cells on the way to becoming an organ,” according to OneZero, which also reports that a “prototype manufacturing platform is already taking shape.”
Kamen was inspired by the way Silicon Valley turned a burgeoning understanding of semiconductors into a massive industry.
“So I thought, why don’t we do the same thing for living tissues,” Kamen tells OneZero. “There ought to be a way to make a high quantity of them, a high quality of them, and at a realistic cost for the American public that’s in desperate need when they have an organ failure.”
Currently, there are some 111,000 Americans alone on organ transplant waiting lists.
Kamen sold Segway in 2009 to James Heselden (who subsequently drove one off a cliff and died), and it’s currently owned by Chinese company Ninebot, which is actually putting out new models. But the two-wheeled scooters made famous by mall cops have more to do with the healthcare industry than you might expect. Kamen developed the contraptions after realizing he could apply the same technology he’d previously pioneered building wheelchairs that would allow disabled people to rise up to everyone else’s eye level.
According to one of his companies, FIRST (a “global robotics community preparing young people for the future”), Kamen holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents. Since Segway, he’s led work on innovating numerous medical pumps and stents; a home dialysis machine; robotic prosthetic arms; a water-purifying machine for use in villages in developing countries; a Coca-Cola fountain vending machine that delivers some 150 different drinks; and even a “Man Cannon” that shoots SWAT team members onto roofs. And in the age of COVID-19, Kamen’s company, DEKA Research & Development, is now manufacturing sterile IV bags and working on better mask materials.
So yeah, we fully believe Kamen can accomplish anything he puts his mind to.