Anthony Atala: Printing A Human Kidney
To many people, the idea of growing replacement body parts in the lab sounds like modern-day science fiction. People are often surprised to learn that this notion of harnessing the body's natural regenerative powers isn't new. In fact, aviator Charles Lindbergh did research in this area back in the 1930s in hopes of finding a solution for his ailing sister-in-law. The idea has endured because of the desperate need for replacement organs. Every 30 seconds, a patient dies from diseases that could be treated with organ or tissue replacement.
Today, regenerative medicine is becoming science fact. In the area of cell therapies, advances include a recent report that cardiac stem cells were able to improve heart function in a small group of patients with heart failure. In the area of tissue engineering -- or growing organs in the lab -- skin, cartilage, bladders, urine tubes, trachea and blood vessels have all been engineered outside the human body and implanted in patients. While these advances are currently helping small groups of patients through clinical trials, the goal of regenerative medicine scientists is to expand the applications of regenerative medicine to a wider range of diseases and also to larger groups of patients.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has called regenerative medicine the "next evolution of medical treatments". With its potential to heal, this new field of science is expected to revolutionize health care. Because of the promise of regenerative medicine, the U.S. military has funded an $85 million effort to develop regenerative medicine treatments for wounded warriors.
Regenerative medicine offers the potential to improve the quality of life for many, but also to combat rising health care costs. Early estimates project that regenerative medicine therapies will result in direct health care cost savings in the United States of $250 billion per year for the chronic diseases of renal failure, heart failure, stroke, diabetes, burn and spinal cord injuries.
In my TED talk, I highlighted some of the work of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC. Our team of more than 300 scientists is working on cell therapies and developing replacement tissues and organs for more than 30 different areas of the body.
For example, the talk highlights our still-experimental work to engineer a human kidney. Being able to replace solid organs such as the heart, liver, kidney and pancreas is considered the "holy grail" of tissue engineering. That's why we're pursuing multiple strategies in this area: cell therapies, tissue "inserts" to augment an organ's function, and "printing" replacement organs.
At TED, we demonstrated 3-D printing technology, already used in a variety of industries -- from auto parts to concrete structures. Our goal, or course, is to apply the technology to organs. The project is based on earlier research in which we engineered miniature kidneys using biomaterials and cells. In animals, these structures were shown to be functional, in that they were able to filter blood and produce dilute urine.
This printer, while still experimental, is being explored for organs such as the kidney and structured tissue such as the ear. The ultimate goal is to use patient data, such as from a CT scan, to create a computer model of the organ we want to print. This model would be used to guide the printer as it layer-by-layer prints a replacement organ made up of cells and the biomaterials to hold the cells together.
For me, the real highlight of the TED experience was a reunion with Luke Masella, one of the first patients to receive a lab-engineered organ -- a bladder. Seeing Luke again and hearing about his successes reinforced in my mind the ultimate goal of regenerative medicine -- to make patients better. That in itself makes it an idea worth sharing in 2012 and beyond.