Back in the 90s many people around the world were left stunned after this image appeared of a mouse with what seemed like a human ear growing on its back. Whilst shocking, today the field of regenerative medicine and the potential to grow our own replacement body parts gives hope to many around the world who suffer at the hands of terrible diseases.
Whilst it is still early, the field has been growing rapidly and already a number of amazing achievements have occurred. Italian scientist Michele de Luca and his team were able to grow an entire replacement skin for a young boy suffering with a rare genetic skin disorder known as epidermolysis bullosa. The replacement skin was able to be grafted onto the boy, essentially curing him! (read the paper here).
Many other amazing organ growing projects have been established. A collaboration between Swedish researchers and researchers at UCL allowed a scaffold soaked in the patient’s stem cells to develop into synthetic wind-pipe which was then transplanted into the patient. Whilst Japanese scientists were able to grow kidneys from stem cells which, when implanted into pigs and rats, functioned like normal.
It is possible that one day the technology may be so well developed that we can literally order up body parts like we were replacing a car headlight. In fact biotechnology company Organovo developed the worlds first 3D bioprinter, able to print human tissue! It uses laser guided cell droplets and other materials to gradually build up 3D tissues. The printer has already been used to generate skin, muscle and blood vessels, whilst Anthony Atala (director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine) and his team were able to contract a mouse-sized heart in just 40 minutes (read more).
Such feats are not without challenge though, and we are still some way off buying a new liver from Amazon. Growing solid organs means fully understanding the interaction between cells and being able to reconstruct and direct cells in the exact manner as is necessary for an organ to develop, as well as being able to construct the supporting element such as blood vessels (read more). We will also need to address a number of ethical considerations. But who knows, maybe one day we will find ourselves in line at the post office with our delivery card and ID in hand, ready to pick up the new spleen we ordered, because the postman left the card saying we weren’t in even though we never left the house and I swear he never rang the doorbell!… I digress.