In Focus: Growing a New Field; October 1997; Scientific American Magazine; by Stix; 2 Page(s)
When Betty Shabazz suffered third-degree burns in a fire set by her grandson, doctors covered parts of her body with an artificially manufactured skin product. The widow of Malcolm X ultimately succumbed to her injuries. But the Shabazz case did serve to highlight the promise of tissue engineering: physicians have credited engineered skin with helping others survive severe burns with less extensive skin autografts from a patient¿s body or without the use of sometimes scarce cadaver skin. The nascent field promises to supply not only replacement skin but cartilage as well--and perhaps, one day, hearts, livers and other complex organs that substitute for transplants.
Since last year, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two artificial skin products for third-degree burns and is about to license cartilage replacement for damaged knees. Canadian regulators have given their sanction to a graft for skin ulcers. And U.S. clinical trials are under way for still more products, including cartilage and other engineered skin as well as cells encapsulated in polymers that deliver a nerve growth factor to the spinal columns of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig¿s disease). "We¿ve moved from important laboratory discoveries in the 1980s to a number of real products," says Robert Langer, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is a leading researcher in the field.