Surgeon Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center used lab-grown urethras to treat patients with damaged urinary tracts.
Five boys aged 10 to 14 were involved in the study and it took place at the Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital in Mexico City. Basically, Atala took each patient’s bladder cells and grew the cells on a scaffold. After about four to seven weeks, the cells grew into an ideal structure on the mesh-like tube and soon enough, the cells were ready for implantation.
At that point, the damaged tissue was removed and surgically replaced with the regenerative tissue custom-made for each patient. The urethra function in the male patients returned to normal and it only took three months. Even six years in, the tissue appeared to be working normally. Currently, treatment for damaged urethras involves skin grafts – but the failure rate of skin grafts is about 50 percent.
Atala and his team are trying to engineering 30 or so tissues and organs, including livers and heart valves. Recently, Atala spoke at TED about printing a human kidney. As we age, our organs fail more – and there aren’t enough organs to go around, Atala said on stage.
In the future, cell-based therapies could be used to treat diseases such as blindness, diabetes, and heart failure. University of College London professor Chris Mason told The BBC:
When an organ or tissue is irreparably damaged or traumatically destroyed, no amount of drugs or mechanical devices will restore the patient back to normal. If the goal is cure, then cell-based therapies are the answer. Using living cells as ‘medicines’ is a major step-change in clinical practice. Not to mention, when patients’ own cells are used, you minimize the risk of rejection. Will these new treatments help doctors cure patients, rather than just treat them? Atala thinks so.
It’s great to see that tissue engineered organs are safe and seem to work very well for years. Of course, urethras are quite simple, but they are among the first tissues that were replaced by engineered grafts several years ago. Professor Atala is doing a great job translating regenerative medicine approaches into clinical practice!