Turning 'Science Fiction' into Reality: Growing Human Organs and Tissue for Transplantation
World-renowned tissue engineering researcher Anthony Atala asks, "Can we grow organs instead of transplanting them?" Although the question sounds straight from the realm of science fiction, his lab at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is doing just that -- engineering over 30 tissues and whole organs, ranging from livers, kidneys and bladders, to muscles and blood vessels.
Anthony, a physician-scientist, is director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine located in North Carolina, where he oversees a team of more than 300 people dedicated to engineering replacement tissues and organs and developing cells therapies for various regions of the body. At the many public lectures that he does on his work, he often shows video footage of his bioengineering team at work developing some the latest technological innovations in the field, including a machine that "prints" human tissue on demand.
His advances in regenerative medicine -- the field of science dedicated to refurbishing diseased or damaged tissue using the body's own healthy cells -- are aimed at addressing a critical issue in medicine today: the vital need for more available organs and tissue for transplantation. "Despite the many advances we've made in organ transplantation since the first one was performed in 1954, we still face a critical shortage of organ and tissue availability," says Anthony, who also serves as Professor and Chair of the Department of Urology at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
"In the last decade, the need and number of patients waiting for a transplant have doubled, while at the same time the number of transplants performed has remained virtually the same," he adds. "Although medicine is doing a better job of keeping us alive longer, this is leading to more organ malfunction as we age." In an aging population, this is a challenge not only for organs, he says, but for human tissue as well, such as in replacing nerves associated with Parkinson's disease.
In his efforts to address such needs, Anthony and his team have made notable headway. They engineered the first lab-grown organ to be implanted into a human and are currently developing experimental fabrication technology that can "print" human tissue on demand. In 2007, Anthony and colleagues at Harvard University showed that stem cells can be harvested from the amniotic fluid of pregnant women.
And in 2011, his team announced long-term success implanting lab-built replacement urine tubes in five boys. These and other breakthroughs in the development of smart bio-materials and tissue fabrication technology stand to revolutionize the practice of medicine.
Anthony grew up in Florida. He earned his M.D. at the University of Louisville where he also completed his residency in urology. He was a fellow at the Harvard Medical School affiliated Children's Hospital Boston from 1990-1992 where he trained under world renowned pediatric urologic surgeons Alan Retik and Hardy Hendren.
In addition to his current research, he is editor-in-chief of Stem Cells Translational Medicine and Current Stem Cell Research and Therapy, and associate editor of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, The Journal of Rejuvenation Research and Gene Therapy and Regulation. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors in his field, including: being elected in 2011 to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and receiving the World Technology Award in Health and Medicine. He has published more than 300 journal articles and has applied for or received more than 200 national and international patents.
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