“I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.” (Frankenstein, Volume 1 Chapter 3)
This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, which is considered the pioneering book of science fiction(SF) criticizing science and technology. Frankenstein is a story of Victor Frankenstein, a chemist captivated by the passion to create life, combining various biomaterials extracted from corpses to give life to a moving giant.
However, if Frankenstein were to be rewritten in the 21st century, it feels as if it should take place in an engineering laboratory instead of a morgue, and in a more ambient atmosphere. This is because Korean research teams have recently produced new artificial tissue and organs that will maximize the performance of prosthetics and mechanical organs. This takes us a step forward toward the conquest of disease and disability.
First, artificial nerves. The joint research team of professor Tae-Woo Lee (Dept. of Material Sciences and Engineering, SNU) and Ph.D. Youngin Kim (Stanford University) developed organic semiconductor artificial nerves mimicking afferent nerves concerned with sensations of touch, pain, and temperature variation. They announced their accomplishment in the international journal Science on June 1. The team arranged small pressure sensors and connected transistors that imitate a neural network. This was for information to be transmitted and processed continually through touch sensors, artificial neurons, and artificial synapses. The research team succeeded in reading and transmitting braille information for the visually impaired, ruggedness of objects, and directional information of moving objects. They also controlled motor nerves by attaching actual insect legs. “We are going to develop robots that act like living beings or overcome disability by applying this to nerve prosthetics that are compatible to organisms,” said Professor Lee.
“skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath” (Volume 1 Chapter 4)
It seems as if Frankenstein failed to provide the giant with proper skin. If this were in the 21st century though, things would be different. Artificial skin for skin replacement is widely researched. The research team of professor Kyoung-Yong Chun (Korea University Group for Convergence Mechanical System(미래융합기계시스템사업단)) and professor Chang-Soo Han (School of Mechanical Engineering, Korea University) have developed artificial skin that can detect subtle touch without a power source. This was announced in the international journal ‘Advanced Materials’ on February 9. The artificial skin is very similar to the human skin, for it can detect not only the instantaneous contact of a feather but also continuously sensed texture such as an object’s roughness. The research team of Ph.D. Junghwan Byun (Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering, SNU) and researcher Yoontaek Lee developed electronic skin thinner than 1mm and lighter than 0.8g. This skin moves actively and flexibly. Solid components such as communication equipment are set inside the soft material, allowing the skin to bend easily and stretch like actual skin. Because remote control of its movement is possible, this can be applied in maneuvering soft robots(robots creating and controlling movement with soft material) with complicated motions. The research results were presented in the international robotics journal ‘Science Robotics’ on May 30.
“eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set,” (Volume 1 Chapter 4)
In the novel, the giant’s eyes are described like those of a monster. In reality, however, artificial eyes in development will play a major role in solving visual impairment. The team of researchers Byeongho Park (Researcher at School of Mechanical Engineering, Yonsei University) of KIST (Korea Institute of Science and Technology) Sensor System Research Center and Heehong Yang (MOGAM Institute for Biomedical Research) focused on the retina, an organ in the eye that recognizes images. They focused on this particular organ because it is a typical part that inflicts visual impairment if damaged. The research team developed a photoreceptor (light receptor) that is the core of the artificial retina that can substitute human retina. This was announced in Advanced Materials on May 18. This artificial retina uses the same receptor protein that real eyes do. Three types of the retina’s photoreceptor proteins are produced artificially by using cells. Then, they are joined with ‘graphene’, a carbon material that is conductive and can bend easily. Researcher Park said, “Similar to the human eye, it can accurately distinguish the three primary colors of light (red, green, blue) and brightness (light contrast).”
Even if nerves, eyes, and skin are completed, they would be useless if they cannot be merged with the existing body or organs. The team of researcher Seong-Min Kim (School of Materials Science and Engineering, GIST(Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology) and Ph.D. Nara Kim (Linköping University of Sweden) developed electrodes that can stimulate body cells or conversely read organ signals, and published the result in materials science international journal ‘NPG Asia Materials’ on April 16. The essence is in the development of a new polymer that can stably transmit electric signals without causing problems inside the human body. When electrodes were made from this material, it was possible to control the heartbeat of myocardial cells with 1V, a voltage lower than that of a small battery. The research director Professor Myung-Han Yoon (School of Materials Science and Engineering, GIST) said, “This will be applied in stimulating nerves and the heart or in processing signals.”
Through its Frankenstein featured article last January, ‘Science’ proposed four categories of human body replacement technologies that can be implemented through 21st century science. △mechanical organs including artificial hearts △bio-organs transplanted from other animals to the human body △mini organs(organoid) cultivated from cells in lab environment △prosthetics including artificial arms and eyes. If a 21st century edition of ‘Frankenstein’ is published, the giant will be a configuration of far more complicated materials and technologies.
Translated by: Jee Hyun Lee, English Editor of Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering, firstname.lastname@example.org