Lost in science fiction: The Fifth Element

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: there are way more than five elements, and – despite what Captain Planet would have you believe – ‘heart’ is not one of them.

However, one bit of Luc Besson’s 1997 movie The Fifth Element may be coming true. Somewhere near the beginning, a gloved hand retrieved from a crashed alien spaceship is cloned to create a masking tape-clad Milla Jovovich. Except she isn’t just cloned: her body is constructed bit by bit, some in layers and some woven from a biological spinning wheel (see from about 1:30 in the video clip embedded below).

This method is startlingly similar to one used by scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, North Carolina USA, to create artificial cartilage (Tao Xu, Binder KW, Albanna MZ, Dice D, Weixhin Zhao, Yoo JJ & Atala A 2013, “Hybrid printing of mechanically and biologically improved constructs for cartilage tissue engineering applications”, Biofabrication, vo. 5, 015001, doi:10.1088/1758-5082/5/1/015001).

They used a ‘hybrid 3D printing’ technique, where fibres of polycaprolactone, a biodegradable polyester, were spun to form a framework onto which rabbit cartilage cells, or elastic chondrocytes, were deposited by an ink-jet printer. The printed cartilage was then implanted into mice, and after 8 weeks appeared to be taking on the properties of natural cartilage.

Although these are really early days, the technique has promise for creating custom cartilage replacements for human patients. The current alternatives are either joint replacement or an elaborate process of causing the cartilage to bleed and hoping that scar tissue covers any gaps.

Of course, building a complete ‘perfect human’, or alien or whatever she was, is even further off.

(This story aired on 6 December 2012 – you can listen to the podcast.)


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