Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Science-Fiction Becomes Reality

Few stories can touch you like that of a medical feat such as this – the world’s first laboratory grown bladder. Reading back over some of my previous posts, I noticed the term `incredible’ has often been used to describe my technological encounters and this story warrants yet another dose of the superlative. Seeing organs grown right before your eyes is mind-blowing, especially when you consider the implications of this medical triumph and its capacity to change lives. As of January this year, the organ transplant waiting list in Australia totalled 1716 and almost 54 times that in the United States at 91 568. Reducing those figures with organs grown from the patient’s own cells is revolutionary.

The concept evokes a strong sense of familiarity. As a recurring theme in science-fiction films such as `The Island’ (2005), a remake of the 1976 classic `Logan’s Run’, it almost seems surreal. But the science of tissue engineering is not new. It was coined back in 1986 when Dr Joseph Vacanti proposed a scaffold made out of bio-absorbable material as a means of growing a three-dimensional organ. The cells could be seeded along the model or scaffold, where they'd continue to grow and develop into a fully functioning organ. This was the process used by Dr Anthony Atala in his development of the first successful laboratory-grown bladder at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina.

Although extremely complex, the procedure actually sounds quite simple in theory. First, a small biopsy is taken from the patient’s organ. In the lab, growth factors are added to enable the cells to multiply outside the body. This nutrient rich solution is placed in a bioreactor, a device that replicates the homeostatic environment of a human being required for cell growth. While it can take years to develop and perfect these growth factors, the correct solution is powerful enough to cause a group of cells about one centimetre in size to multiply to fill a football field in about 60 days. The multiplied cells are seeded onto a collagen scaffold and returned to the bioreactor, where they continue to grow. Finally, about 7-8 weeks after the biopsy, the model is implanted into the body where it eventually degrades as the new organ or tissue integrates with the body.

The procedure overcomes the two major risks associated with previous treatment options. Firstly, the engineered bladders are grown from the patient’s own cells so there is no risk of rejection as is the case for organ donor recipients. An alternative treatment is to repair the non-functioning bladder tissue with tissue from the intestines, however this may lead to problems such as osteoporosis, kidney stone formation, and increased risk of cancer. This is because the intestine is designed to absorb nutrients, whereas the bladder is designed to excrete. Testing showed that the engineered bladders functioned as well as bladders that are repaired with intestine tissue, but with none of the ill effects.

Dr Atala is currently working to grow 20 different tissues and organs and believes that tissue engineers could one day grow a human heart. While the science needs further study before it can be widely used, additional clinical trials of the bladders are scheduled to begin later this year. Scientists hope that laboratory-grown organs could one day help solve the shortage of donated organs available for transplantation. After sharing in the passion and skill of these amazing scientists, I believe it’s only a matter of time.


  • At 11:06 pm, Blogger James said…

    I seem to remember hearing something similar to this before. At least, the growing the organs part, as in a whole bladder, maybe a kidney, that kind of thing. I remember seeing that ear being grown on the back of that mouse a few years ago. But when I saw the bit about the actual working valve, and the working muscle fibres, it really hit home that this is most likely the most awesome medical innovation since the discovery of antibiotics.

    You have one of the most awesome jobs out there. I'd love to be able to spend 20 minutes talking to some of the people that you guys get to cover. but then again, having to pack up and go to a different story would drive me nuts sometimes, I'd want to know too much :-P

  • At 10:55 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Sara

    I think you are the best reporter on Beyond.

    Like, the others are pretty good too, but you are by far the best. I thought your boxing story was so funny. Especially the bit when you were running along the beach to the Rocky music.

    Good times.



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