Growing Body Parts
At this moment, more than 90,000 patients in the United States are awaiting organ transplants. The number of organs donated each year is only a quarter of what’s needed, and many transplants fail because the recipient’s body rejects the new organ.
Anthony Atala, 47, is trying to solve this crisis by engineering replacement organs or other parts from a patient’s own tissue. The benefits would be astounding: a ready supply and a rejection rate of zero.
It took Atala, a pediatric urologist, nine years to figure out how to engineer bladders in animals. He starts with cells taken from a biopsy of an existing bladder. The cells multiply with feeding, then are placed on a biodegradable organ-shaped scaffold. In less than two months, the cells envelop the mold.
Atala scored the first functional lab-grown animal bladder in 1999. Since then, he has been perfecting the process for tests in humans, which could begin as early as this year. And “once we know how to do this for one organ,” he says, “we can do it for others.” Among 80 projects, he and his colleagues are creating heart tissue to patch damaged muscle following a heart attack. They’re engineering pancreatic cells that, inserted into a faulty organ, will make insulin and perhaps cure diabetes. And they’re trying to grow fingers. “That’s more preliminary,” Atala says. “We can make the components–nerve, bone, and cartilage–but it’s putting them together that we need to figure out.”