free debate

April 1, 2011

More Amazing Medical Science: Regeneration

It's been an idea in science fiction for years. What if people could regrow their own body parts? The extreme example, and my personal favorite, comes from the British TV show Doctor Who, where the main character, an alien Time Lord, can replace every single cell in his body after suffering some fatal injury, thereby cheating death. He's also been known to regrow a hand, if cut of within the first 13 hours of his regeneration cycle. The idea is similar to a real phenomenon in nature: some animals can regrow body parts if those sections are lost, Think the tails of lizards or sea star arms. Unfortunately, humans do not share this handy ability to revive lost or diseased tissue, so we rely currently on the imperfect process of organ donation. The waiting list to receive an organ donation is over 100,000 people long, and many of these die before a good match becomes available. Even if they do get a replacement, the match is often not perfect: the new organ is from a different person, and so has different DNA. Sometimes, these replacements are rejected. The patient's body does not accept the new tissue as part of itself, and the immune system attacks it, potentially causing the organ to fail again, putting the person in the same, if not worse, condition then before the replacement.

Here's where new medical technology could step in to save the day. Bioartificial organs are created by taking healthy cells from the sick organ of a person, and using a scaffold - a synthetic or organic frame to make sure the cells form correctly - to grow a new one. This would solve the rejection problem: the immune system would recognize the replacement as part of the individual, because it is. The technology to complete this process is also fascinating. It's similar to a 3D inkjet printer: the cells are placed, one by one, like drops of ink into the shape of the new organ. This is incubated to encourage it to grow like living tissue, instead of dying, and then can be transplanted just like any other organ. The main researcher for this technology, Dr. Anthony Atala, discussed it in more detail in a TED talk.

I've known several people who became organ donors, and several others who have needed organs. It's a tough process on either end, and often risky for both donor and recipient. Technology like this could help make the process a bit easier, and improve the success rate. It's truly a testament to what medical technology can do to improve our lives.