Dr. Aubrey de Grey, one of the leading anti aging biologists, has long stated that he believes the way we will extend our lifespan beyond 120 years old is to replace the parts that wear out.
That is one of the reasons why I find this line of research so appealing because it seems to be a real world implementation of Dr. de Grey’s strategy.
Of course, this technology can also be used for organ replacement not due to aging. As of February 10, 2010, there were over 105,600 people waiting for an organ donation in the United States. However, from January to November 2009, just over 26,000 organ transplants took place.
The number of people in need of organ transplants is simply rising faster than the number of available donors, and as a result 19 people die every day due to this shortage.
So it would be nothing short of miraculous if we could one day replace virtually every organ or tissue in patients’ bodies with young pristine organs as they age or become diseases or injured.
Recently, steps toward achieving this goal have advanced greatly, including the amazing work being conducted at Dr. Anthony Atala’s Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Lab-Grown Organs and Tissues are Here
Currently, Dr. Atala and his colleagues are working on developing organs and tissues for virtually every part of the human body. They were the first to create human bladders in the lab, and successfully implant them in patients.
They are also in the process of engineering a human ear and developing technology to print skin directly on burns using an ordinary inkjet printer!
The Institute has also identified a new type of non-controversial stem cells that come from amniotic fluid and placenta.
Adult stem cells (as opposed to embryonic stem cells, which are at the heart of the stem cell controversy) are a truly exciting part of the future of medicine, especially anti-aging medicine.
As you age, your stem cells diminish in quality and quantity, so just when you require strong stem cells the most, you’re becoming deficient. Hence your organs and tissues eventually wear out and need to be restored or replaced.
What makes stem cells so special is their potential to develop into many different cell types. When a stem cell divides, it either becomes another type of cell, such as a muscle cell or brain cell, or it remains a stem cell. Further, these cells act as an internal repair system in many types of tissues, dividing a seemingly infinite number of times to replenish other cells.
The new type of stem cells identified by Wake Forest scientists can be used to form blood vessel, bone, liver, muscle and other types of tissues, and they say a bank of 100,000 specimens could potentially provide 99 percent of the U.S. population with a genetic match for transplantation.
Not only are these stem cells easily obtainable, but they can be grown in large quantities because they typically double every 36 hours.
Regenerative Medicine at its Finest
Currently researchers at the Institute are also working to grow more than 22 different types of organs and tissues in the lab and are developing cell therapies for diseases such as diabetes and muscular dystrophy.
Your body already has an amazing ability to regenerate, such as healing a skin wound or broken bone. It’s also true for organs, such as your liver.
Right now, scientists can implant special smart biomaterials to form a matrix to help your body’s tissues rebuild themselves, but it only works for small areas, typically 1 centimeter or less. These new advances will make it possible to not only replace entire organs, but also to repair much larger areas.
Already, one man was able to regenerate a lost fingertip using a special powder substance called extracellular matrix -- a mix of protein and connective tissue surgeons use to repair tendons. It signals your body to start the process of tissue regrowth, and in just four weeks his fingertip grew back completely.
Scientists are also using patients’ own cells to grow organs in the lab, as there’s little risk of rejection when using your own adult stem cells. This means you’re less likely to need dangerous immunosuppressive drugs that are common with some treatments.
When I served as the kidney transplant coordinator for the University of Illinois prior to starting medical school in 1978, it was clear that the ability to produce organs -- and not have to put people on waiting lists -- would be an amazing accomplishment of modern medicine.
It seems we are now closer to this goal than ever before.