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Why we could live forever

Before we turned up to interview our main guest for this programme, we were all asked to confirm we didn’t have a cold, were well and certainly did not have anything infectious. We were filming a leading light of medicine who, because she has had a heart and lung transplant, was very susceptible to any disease. She is typical of a new frontier of medical advance in which the future of medicine lies not in the hands of traditional medical experts but with bio-engineers and technologists who are shaping the future of our health.

This new technology builds new body parts from the cells up, enabling patients to receive new transplants from tissues grown from their own bodies. It is a science in its infancy but it has the power to transform the way we think of medicine and ageing.

We arrived on the outskirts of Hyde Park in the newly pedestrianised Exhibition Road. Here sit some of the world’s most famous museums.

Look around you and you see the ornate Victoria and Albert Museum, the intricate animal adorned façade of the Natural History Museum. Also nestling amongst them is the rather dull grey form of Imperial College London.

But behind these doors lies some of the most exciting scientific research being undertaken anywhere in the world.

Dame Julia Polak is founder of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre at Imperial College.

Extraordinarily, in 1995 she was also the recipient of a heart and lung transplant, making her one of the longest survivors of the procedure. It was an experience which led her to a pioneering career in the fledgling science of growing new organs from cells.

The new technologies mean scientists can create a three-dimensional structure which can be implanted into the patient. There have been some initial clinical trials for the heart and for the bladder.

A group in the US created a three-dimensional tissue engineered bladder in the laboratory and implanted it into children and eight years on the bladder is still working.

Dame Julia Polak admits the new knowledge may mean, in theory, we could live forever.

“We are rewriting the book of medicine in that respect,” she says. “Nobody imagined that you can use even your own cells, grow them in the laboratory and put them back.”

At the moment, most of the new science is still bound within the confines of the laboratory. But Dame Polak seems optimistic about the future.

“Who knows what will happen in five or ten years but there are lots of hurdles to overcome because there are regulatory hurdles, financial hurdles and creating an atmosphere of really multidisciplinary teams including everybody including patients to work together with companies and science. It needs work on it but it’s happening,” she says.

I asked her if in a decade’s time, it was plausible that she might be able to make me a kidney from my own cells. She clearly sees problems ahead but my theoretical request doesn’t seem too outlandish.

From London we flew to Stanford University in California to see another new technology which could change the world.

Professor Ada Poon has developed a revolutionary prototype device. Powered and controlled by radio waves generated outside of the body, it is so small it could move through a patient’s bloodstream, collecting medical data or delivering medication.

This could be the start of miniature robot doctors searching through your body, looking for problems and fixing them.

It sounds like a movie but it’s probably too unbelievable for fiction. For the whole truth about the possibilities of future medicine, tune into our Horizons programme on robotics and the future of medicine.

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