In years past, patients who suffered crippling ailments to their vital organs were often forced to rely on organ transplants for survival. Individuals who severed parts of their body also faced a similarly disconcerting prognosis, as they risked losing the body part if it could not safely be reattached. However, a budding new field of medicine now stands poised to fundamentally alter the way doctors treat patients facing organ failure and loss of appendages. Medical practitioners across the world are now extracting stem cells from patients to recreate organs, bones, and a variety of other bodily tissues.
The Science Behind the Story
A good example of how this medical procedure works comes from New York City. Dr. Thomas Einhorn was faced with the challenge of treating a patient’s persistent broken ankle, which would not properly heal despite multiple surgeries. After standard methods of treatment had proved ineffective, Einhorn opted for a more innovative strategy, one he had learned about from French researchers. Einhorn first collected bone marrow from man’s pelvis, as this material is a rich source of adult stem cells. He then condensed the bone marrow into four teaspoons of a red liquid, which he proceeded to inject back into the patient. Four weeks later, the man’s ankle had completely healed.
So, how does this process work? Adult stem cells are naturally well versed in repairing cells, as their main task is to heal or replace surrounding cells. Adult stem cells perform this function in organs and tissues throughout the body, such as the brain, bone marrow, blood vessels, skin, teeth, heart, gut, and liver. They can be extracted from fat cells, the lining of the nose or from bone marrow. In recent years, scientists have discovered that adult stem cells can morph into replacement cells for damaged tissue and organs. Because of this characteristic, adult stem cells can be taken from the body and used to potentially grow replacement body parts.
Putting Theory Into Practice
In June 2008, doctors in Spain performed a remarkable and live-saving procedure; they used a female patient’s own cells to restore a donated trachea part, and then connected the refurbished piece to the woman’s own trachea. The patient’s body had no problems accepting the transplanted trachea piece, as the tube had been created using her own stem cells. Within a short period of time, the patient was in reportedly excellent health.
Doctors in other countries took notice of this breakthrough, and soon began to build upon the groundwork laid by the Spanish team. A ten-year old UK boy became a newsworthy benefactor of this research in March 2010, when he received a completely new trachea. This procedure was the first of its kind, as an entire donated trachea had been revitalized with the boy’s stem cells. Swedish doctors took this procedure one step further in June 2011, when they used a 36-year old man’s stem cells to grow an artificial trachea in a lab. The patient recovered quickly from the surgical procedure, and was soon able to breathe normally. Thanks to regenerative medicine, both patients were able to recover from life-threatening medical conditions.
Of course, regenerative medicine does not apply only to new bones and wind pipes. According to Newsweek magazine, scientists are now able to grow bladders, skin, cartilage, bone, windpipes, corneas, arteries, and urethras in labs. The scaffolding for these body parts are created from synthetic materials, such as biodegradable polymers, and natural materials like collagen. These materials serve to keep the developing organ in one piece, allowing the stem cells to go about their work. As researchers have discovered, stem cells not only take on the characteristics of the organ they are recreating, but also facilitate the organ assembly process.
Regenerative medicine has already established a promising track record of saving lives. One such case involved a 10 year old boy with a bladder in such poor shape that it put his kidneys at risk of failure. Doctors removed stem cells from the boy’s bladder, and grew them in a lab with the proper scaffolding supports. Two months later, doctors had a brand new bladder to attach to their patient’s original bladder, significantly increasing both its size and capabilities. Ten years after the surgery, the boy was enjoying life as a healthy college sophomore.
In addition to producing fully-function organs, regenerative medicine has shown the ability to grow back severed body parts. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine were able to create a powder for appendage regeneration using some very unusual ingredients – specifically, proteins and tissues from pig bladders. This type of medicine may sound strange, but the concoction has proved invaluable to Lee Spievack, who used the powder to completely regenerate a fingertip severed from a hobby shop airplane accident.
What the Future Holds
Given the results it has shown thus far, it comes as no surprise that regenerative medicine has a significant number of enthusiastic supporters. One of the biggest proponents of regenerative medicine is the U.S. military, which has devoted millions of dollars to researching this new frontier of medicine.
The latest research is even more cause for optimism; the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine has developed an experimental new technology that enables them to “print” new organs – and that’s not a misprint. Essentially, the institute takes a sample piece of tissue from an organ, and creates a 3D image of the desired organ using scanners. Once the image is complete, the machine begins to create a three dimensional organ, using its supply of synthetic polymers, proteins, liquids and other ingredients to manufacture its end product. To date, the printer has been able to produce miniature kidneys that have functioned well in animals. Though the “printer” is still in its experimental stage, its developers are hopeful that it eventually be able to produce much-needed organs for patients requiring transplants.
Though it may seem like science fiction, regenerative medicine has made an extraordinary amount of progress toward becoming a viable medical option. If stem cell-based regeneration does in fact come to full fruition, it could represent a lifesaving breakthrough for countless patients across the world.