Medical expert offers peek into future of organ transplants
Advances in stem cell research have given medical researchers even more hope that organs such as kidneys and livers grown outside the body will in the next few years be an option to help patients awaiting transplants, according to a world-renowned researcher and surgeon who lectured March 26 at Elon University as the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the North Carolina Academy of Science.
Addressing more than 200 scientists, professors and students who filled McKinnon Hall for his appearance, Dr. Anthony Atala traced the evolution of his medical breakthroughs with hundreds of other researchers from around the globe to grow blood vessels and organs outside the body for transplant into sick patients.
The director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine guided listeners through his early work with urethrae and bladders that he helped grow, to the research into stem cells from amniotic fluid and placentas that scientists now believe may hold the key to future advances in the field.
“Our jobs as scientists is to keep advancing the field and to make our own technology obsolete. We’re not nearly where we need to be, but we’re making advances one step at a time,” he said. “For us, the promise of regenerative medicine isn’t about the cells we use or the technology we use. It’s all about making our patients better.”
In his presentation, “New Organs: Alternatives to Transplantation,” Atala outlined three challenges that have confronted researchers in regenerative medicine: an inherent inability to grow cells outside the body in large quantities, inadequate biomaterials, and inadequate vascularity.
Cells can’t be implanted in a greater quantity than about the size of a pencil eraser, Atala said as he delved deeper into the three issues. Anything larger won’t have the built-in blood flow that allows the cells to grow and heal. However, Atala said, researchers have overcome these obstacles for heart valves and bladders, among other organs, and developments in other areas of science are contributing to their work.
The future of regenerative medicine may be with stem cells collected from amniotic fluid and placentas, he said, which reproduce at the same rates as embryonic stem cells but without the tendency to form tumors or be rejected by hosts.
New techniques to grow solid organs like kidneys, livers, and even the pancreas, have offered doctors glimpses into the future of their field. For instance, Atala said, mice in his labs have been treated in such a way that their diabetes was reversed for up to three months.
Atala led the team that developed the first lab-grown organ – a urinary bladder – implanted in a human. He is a practicing surgeon with current work that focuses on growing new human cells, tissues and organs. Atala received the Christopher Columbus Foundation Award, an honor funded by Congress and bestowed on a living American who is “currently working on a discovery that will significantly affect society.” He has also received the Gold Cystoscope Award for advances in his field.
From his official biography on the Institute for Regenerative Medicine website: “Ten applications of technologies developed in Dr. Atala's laboratory have been used clinically. He is the editor of eight books, including Methods of Tissue Engineering, Principles of Regenerative Medicine, and Minimally Invasive Urology, and has published more than 250 journal articles and has applied for or received over 200 national and international patents.”
“His presentation was perfectly designed for an audience composed of so many undergraduate students considering a future career devoted to scientific study,” said Elon University professor Michael Kingston, who invited Atala to speak and coordinated the conference on campus. “His description of his team's collaborative, problem-solving approach conveyed both the excitement, tedium and disappointment involved in working toward a significant scientific breakthrough that is only possible after years of experimentation.
“He made it clear that the medical challenges that face society today will be solved by interdisciplinary teams of dedicated scientists working collaboratively.”