The Segway’s inventor has a new project: manufacturing human organs

When the FDA approves lab-grown human organs for patients, Dean Kamen wants to be ready to mass-produce them

According to Liz Brody

This past January, the umpteenth version of the Segway Personal Transporter whisked attendees around in its white, egg-shaped seat at CES, the huge annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Called the Segway S-Pod, it drew comparisons to the hover-chairs in Wall-E that shuttled around people so out of shape and blob-like, they’d forgotten how to stand.

This is not how Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway almost 20 years ago, imagined his legacy.

Kamen was inspired to create a device like the Segway in the early ’90s, when he noticed a young man who’d lost his legs in a wheelchair at the mall. It seemed like everywhere Kamen went that night, he bumped into the guy, seeing him unable to get over a curb or reach a high shelf at Radio Shack, too low to be noticed in line at the ice cream counter. Kamen had already been thinking about how to help the disabled. “And I just decided, you know what?” he says. “I’m going to solve that problem.”

It took Kamen years to create a wheelchair with gyroscopic stabilisers, computer chips, tilt sensors, and special wheel clusters that could rear the chair on its hind wheels, allowing users to “walk” at eye-level with the able-bodied. Then, when he realised he could apply the same technology to the standing masses, his ambition grew. He believed the new device, which he called Ginger (after Ginger Rogers) and eventually renamed the Segway, would transform cities, replacing cars and their pollution with residents gliding down green streets, each one on a Segway. By the time the device actually launched, in December 2001, on a Good Morning America special, hype around Kamen and this vision reached a peak, complete with rumors from a leaked book proposal that Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs both expected the Segway would be the next big thing. Shortly before its release, Kamen told Time magazine the device would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”

That never happened. Instead, the Segway became a regular feature of no-longer-walking tours and mall security, and Kamen moved on. In 2009, he sold the company to James Heselden, who accidentally drove his own Segway off a cliff and died. Today, the company is owned by Ninebot, a global brand headquartered in China that has found a new consumer market and will release at least three new Segway models this year.

Meanwhile, Kamen is still busy inventing. His company, DEKA (for DEan KAmen) Research & Development, in Manchester, New Hampshire, employs nearly 800 engineers. Since his first commercial invention — a wearable infusion pump that he built in high school — he has innovated a number of medical pumps and stents; a futuristic prosthetic robotic arm for amputee soldiers; a “Man Cannon” that launches SWAT personnel onto a roof; and the Slingshot, a purifying machine that brings clean water to villages in developing countries. And new ideas keep coming, whether that’s building a Coca-Cola fountain vending machine that can make different 150 drinks, or an at-home dialysis unit that means patients won’t have to go to clinics. He started a nonprofit, FIRST Robotics, to encourage kids to start inventing. And when the Covid-19 crisis hit, he refocused his firm’s attention on manufacturing sterile solution for IV bags, which he believes will be in short supply, and inventing better mask materials.

But none of these 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.

In December 2016, at the age of 65, he and his collaborators won an $80 million Department of Defence contract to manufacture replacement tissue and organs on-demand. Wounded soldiers need body parts, the DoD explained at the time. And so do Americans on organ transplant waiting lists — 111,000 people, at last count.

Kamen used the grant to help start the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), a nonprofit consortium of some 170 companies, research institutions, and organisations 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.

Kamen, now 69, says ARMI will start to get there — “whether it’s an organ or piece of organ” — within a decade.

Though industrialising human organ production may sound like a moonshot, Kamen has a track record of unlikely adventures into which this goal seems to fit. In 1986, he became Lord Dumpling — Dumpie to his friends — after he bought a two-acre island off the Connecticut coast called North Dumpling. He tricked it out with its own constitution and currency (dumplings, naturally), and ran it on solar and wind power. His main home 20 minutes outside Manchester, too, is befitting of a man with an outsize imagination. A huge hexagonal acropolis, the house is built around a multistory steam boat engine that once belonged to Henry Ford, has a few secret doorways, and a wall that opens onto a hanger where his helicopter awaits. The flying time between his home and DEKA’s roof is three minutes, he says.

Kamen turned to the artificial organ project about four years ago. That’s when he met Martine Rothblatt, a fellow eccentric visionary who co-founded Sirius XM. After Rothtblatt’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition called pulmonary arterial hypertension, she started United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company, to develop drugs to treat it. Rothblatt told Kamen that in addition to pharmaceuticals, her R&D team was working on growing artificial lungs from patients’ stem cells that are seeded on scaffolds. He went to visit UT’s labs in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, to see for himself. There, he was struck by how dated the equipment was — “borrowed from Madame Curie,” as he describes it. He told Rothblatt he could add sensors and systems to improve accuracy and keep things sterile. The two had already begun collaborating when they heard that the Department of Defence was calling for proposals on a scalable process of manufacturing human organs.

There’s been exciting progress growing organs in the lab over the last 15 years. One of the most exciting developments has come out of Wake Forest University School of Medicine’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. There, in 1999, Anthony Atala, MD, grew a bladder and implanted it in a patient. Since then he’s improved the technique, which like UT’s artificial lungs, involves creating a scaffold of a bladder and infusing it with the patient’s cells so the organ is not rejected.

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

Still, Kamen could see the potential of engineering systems with data-measuring and quality control capabilities — not only to speed up bringing all this science into clinical practice, but to then speed up scaling it. Eventually, he saw, the field would need special 3D bio printers that, instead of using plastic or metal, print living cells and produce organ scaffolds. It would need equipment like bioreactors to grow and cultivate the stem cells that are eventually implanted on these scaffolds. And it would need custom technology to measure and monitor in real time what’s happening with those cells on the way to becoming an organ. He could get a head start on building these tools.

Betting on success for growing organs, Kamen compares scaling their manufacturing to the way Silicon Valley turned an understanding of semiconductors into creating transistors so small and cheap that the tech industry now churns out phones by billions. “So I thought, why don’t we do the same thing for living tissues,” he says. “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.”

When Kamen and Rothblatt saw the Department of Defence’s call for just those solutions, it felt like the DOD “were a fly on the wall to our conversations,” marvels Kamen. “And we said, this is a major opportunity.”

During the process of applying for the grant, Kamen had several meetings with the DOD. “I told them that I’m going to collect extraordinary people that have different backgrounds, that probably don’t interact now,” he says, “but if they did would dramatically accelerate the path to a major breakthrough.”

To form ARMI and BioFabUSA, the entity within it that will eventually carry out the work of manufacturing these organs, Kamen attracted members like Rockwell Automation, which put in $10 million, and universities like MIT and UCLA. Then he went about recruiting the most cutting-edge companies in the field to join them. He hired a staff that’s now around 25 people, including two former FDA officials Richard McFarland, MD, PhD and Becky Robinson-Zeigler, PhD, who run the regulatory program. He also won the support of New Hampshire’s governor Christopher Sununu and U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Executives from Microsoft and Boston Scientific are on the board. So is Rothblatt.

The historic Amoskeag Millyard, which winds along both sides of New Hampshire’s Merrimack River, once produced nearly 500 miles of fabric a day, and dates back to the 1830s. Now Kamen owns about a million square feet of the hulking red brick factories. This is where both his company and his human organ projects are based. Teams from ARMI’s member companies and research institutions have set up shop in Millyard buildings, and they’re working on different approaches to the same goal side by side. Someday Kamen hopes these old textile factories will become a hub of organ manufacturing.

The historic Amoskeag Millyard, where DEKA and ARMI/BioFabUSA are based. DEKA employs nearly 800 engineers.

It’s still early days. But a prototype manufacturing platform is already taking shape in BioFabUSA’s offices.

posted by O Kays

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