By Michael A. Smith, MD
And the same could be said for research that is ongoing in many other centers in the world where scientists are succeeding in accomplishing for humans what lizards, worms and starfish have always done without any help at all: to regrow new limbs, organs and other tissue.
Nature Regenerates Body PartsCut a flatworm into several pieces and each piece is capable of growing an entire new worm. Not so with humans. However, if you cut away a piece of bone, skin or many other human organs, the body can regenerate some of its lost tissue … it’s just a very limited process for us. But just imagine if we could regenerate whole organs like lower animals. Wow — now that would be cool medicine.
In 2010, a single gene was discovered that was linked to regeneration. When p21 (the gene) is inactivated, mice gained the ability to regenerate lost tissues to a greater extent. While p21 normally blocks cell division in the event of DNA damage that can initiate cancer, no increase in cancer has been observed in mice lacking the gene’s activity.
While transplanted organs and tissue have provided extra years to many people for the past few decades, the possibility of engineering organs from a patient's own cells means that organs will be transplanted into a patient without the possibility of rejection and the need for immunosuppressant drugs.
This may seem like science fiction, but with the discovery of p21, regenerative medicine is just right around the corner.
Stem Cells are the Key to Regenerative MedicineMuch of regenerative medicine research, such as that conducted at the University of California San Francisco, involves the use of stem cells: cells that occur in every multicellular organism that have the potential to differentiate into many types of specialized cells.
At the University of Pittsburgh, researchers are pursuing the development of an artificial intestine, built from a patient's own stem cells, for children with short bowel syndrome. Again, this is research going on right now — not in some vague, distant future.
At Wake Forest's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, scientists are engineering from stem cells pancreatic beta cells (which become dysfunctional in diabetes), heart valves, anal sphincters, miniature livers and more. Institute Director Dr. Anthony Atala believes it is only a matter of time before a human heart is engineered.
In 2006, he announced the successful implantation of laboratory grown organs into the first human recipients — teenagers and children who received bladders grown from their own cells. "This is one small step in our ability to go forward in replacing damaged tissues and organs," Dr. Atala stated.
"We have shown that regenerative medicine techniques can be used to generate functional bladders that are durable. This suggests that regenerative medicine may one day be a solution to the shortage of donor organs in this country for those needing transplants."
Will Organ Donation Become a Thing of the Past?As the populations of the Western world continue to age, regenerative medicine could end up providing not only a solution to the donor organ shortage, but, while not reversing the aging process itself, providing a means to combat many of the adverse effects of aging.
Imagine this scenario: in the year 2035 you’re infected by the influenza virus which subsequently attacks your heart muscle. This causes a cardiomyopathy and eventually heart failure. Your only hope is a heart transplant. But don’t fret. There’s no waiting on an organ donor list. Instead, doctors take your own stem cells and grow a new heart … perfectly fit for you because it is you!
This scenario may seem impossible, but the reality of it is just a few years away. And keep in mind; this is NOT embryonic stem cell research. This is research that uses your OWN stem cells to grow tissues and organs as you need them. For more information on this new kind of stem cells research, check out our article on Dr. Michael West, a pioneer in adult stem cell research.
So what do you think about all of this? Will you be purchasing a “lot” to keep your stem cells for future use? You might really want to think about it. It’s coming.
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