A patient with tracheal cancer was given a new trachea grown entirely in a lab from his own stem cells using a synthetic scaffold. The cancer has been diagnosed as terminal, but thanks to the surgery, the man is likely to be discharged in a few days. As Gautam Naik at the Wall Street Journal reports:
“It’s yet another demonstration that what was once considered hype [in the field of tissue engineering] is becoming a life-changing moment for patients,” said Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, who wasn’t involved in the latest operation. . .
With the patient on the surgery table, Dr. [Paolo] Macchiarini and colleagues then added chemicals to the stem cells, persuading them to differentiate into tissue—such as bony cells—that make up the windpipe.
About 48 hours after the transplant, imaging and other studies showed appropriate cells in the process of populating the artificial windpipe, which had begun to function like a natural one. There was no rejection by the patient’s immune system, because the cells used to seed the artificial windpipe came from the patient’s own body.
Dr. Russell of the McGowan Institute sounded a note of caution about using this technique to build more-complex organs. For example, while tissue engineering can help to build hollow organs such as a windpipe, it will likely prove a bigger challenge to use the technique for creating the heart, which has much thicker tissue.
The use of a synthetic scaffold is landmark for two reasons. First, it means that those in need of a trachea transplant don’t have to wait for a donor trachea. Stem cells can be used to make one to order. Second, previous lab-grown tracheae had used tracheae from cadavers as scaffolds. The use of a fully synthetic scaffold means that only the patient’s own cells create the new organ. As a result, the body recognizes the new organ as its own and does not attempt to reject it, removing the need for immunosuppressive drugs. The success of this operation creates the foundation for other lab-grown organs because the only two necessary ingredients were stem cells and synthetic scaffolds. No need for donors, cadavers, or immunosuppressive drugs.
The implications for anti-aging medicine are incredible: imagine being able to get a new set of organs dropped in every twenty years or so. Brand new heart, lungs, and guts fresh from the factory. Or, if you’re born with a bad ticker or digestive issues, no worries, we’ll just whip you up a new one and swap it out. It would be a paradigm shift in the treatment of disease.
The possibilities here are tremendous, but also a long ways away. Dr. Russell is right when he calls out the simplicity of the trachea in relation to other organs. The trachea is the first small step of many large steps science still needs to take before we can readily and safely replace any organ in the body. Still, that a man’s life was saved by a technology that was science fictional two decades ago is a cause worth celebrating.
For years, researchers have been using fluorescent proteins in bacteria and animals to study everything from gene therapy and neural development to cancer and limb regeneration (and create some very pretty pictures). The concept is fairly simple: by inserting the gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein, originally found in jellyfish) at the end of another gene—say the gene for hemoglobin—its glow can be used to measure how much hemoglobin is produced and where it is produced in the cell.
Inspired by the success of GFP as a research tool (it earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008), scientists have adopted a similar approach to identify and locate transplanted stem cells in animal models. Except in their case, they’ve begun to use the gene for luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the mesmerizing glow of the firefly. And if this method works, it could make stem cells a potent tool for addressing heart disease.
Star Wars, A.I., The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek and a host of other science-fiction films all share a particular futurist’s dream: a broken body is repaired with artificial replacements. Reality is finally catching up with our imaginations. Stem cells, mind-controlled arms, osso-integrated prostheses, exoskeletons, and xenotransplants are here. It’s important to note that most of these innovations are right on the cutting edge, either experimental, prohibitively expensive, or both. Individually they each may seem like small or too esoteric to matter, but as a whole, it looks like we’re on our way to a very cyborg future.
Rex Bionics has created what will be a commercially available set of robotic exoskeleton legs. The only currently existing set, custom built for Hayden Allen, allow him to walk up and down stairs and take awesome, super-mecha pictures like the one above. In an interview, he talks about basic quality of life issues (blood circulation, knowing when you have to go to the bathroom) that come from being ambulatory. Take that, paralysis!
Last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour took a plot from the first episode and took it to the next level: From a failed human cloning experiment to success. We learn within the first ten minutes of the episode that Dr. Jacob Hood’s nemeiss, the evil geneticist known as Gepetto, has cloned humans, implanted the embryonic clones into women, and successfully brought them to term. We learn later that Gepetto cloned the babies with her own DNA so she can harvest one of them for a new pancreas, which she needs to live. Of course taking a pancreas means killing the baby, so Gepetto would be guilty of murder along with any number of additional violations of the law.
While last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour never specifically discussed the ethical quandaries of a private company storing umbilical blood, but we get a pretty good idea of the writers’ opinion when the owners of a cord-blood storage firm turn out to be corrupt stem-cell stealing scumbags. Naturally, Hood and Young sniff them out and they get busted in what I must admit was a pretty snazzy chase scene through the SoCal countryside, but they did it without ever discussing the questions raised by medical organizations about these companies.