Human organ factories? Defense Department seeds Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s ambitious project, but success seems years away

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Credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
[N]one of [Dean Kamen’s] many inventions — including the Segway — has an impact that comes close to what could be accomplished by the most ambitious project of Kamen’s career: building human organ factories.

Kamen [started] the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), a nonprofit consortium of some 170 companies, research institutions, and organizations from across the country that pay an annual fee, provide equipment, or contribute in other ways in exchange for sharing research and resources. Including the DoD grant, the project is funded to the tune of about $300 million.

Plenty of scientists are trying to grow organs. But what sets Kamen’s group apart is that he’s working a step ahead: He’s making the tools and machinery to mass-produce those organs, if and when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves them for patients. He wants to pump out hearts and kidneys much the same way factories produce smartphones: in high-tech assembly lines.

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Many internal organs … have yet to be grown in a lab, much less put into a patient; even the bioengineering of most tissues like muscles and ligaments is still in the early research stage.

Kamen knows there are doubters. Throughout his career he’s paid little attention to them. “Will it take 50 years? Absolutely not,”’ he says. “Will it be 25? Five? It’s not going to be a bright line.” He stands by his bet that “within 10 years it will be as common as a lot of standard medical procedures to have a defective organ or piece of an organ replaced.”

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