Your New Body/Growing New Organs; Your Bionic Future; Scientific American Presents; by Mooney, Mikos; 6 Page(s)
EVERY DAY thousands of people of all ages are admitted to hospitals because of the malfunction of some vital organ. Because of a dearth of transplantable organs, many of these people will die. In perhaps the most dramatic example, the American Heart Association reports that only 2,300 of the 40,000 Americans who needed a new heart in 1997 got one. Lifesaving livers and kidneys likewise are scarce, as is skin for burn victims and others with wounds that fail to heal. It can sometimes be easier to repair a damaged automobile than the vehicle's driver because the former may be rebuilt using spare parts, a luxury that human beings simply have not enjoyed.
An exciting new strategy, however, is poised to revolutionize the treatment of patients who need new vital structures: the creation of man-made tissues or organs, known as neo-organs. In one scenario, a tissue engineer injects or places a given molecule, such as a growth factor, into a wound or an organ that requires regeneration. These molecules cause the patient's own cells to migrate into the wound site, turn into the right type of cell and regenerate the tissue. In the second, and more ambitious, procedure, the patient receives cells-either his or her own or those of a donor-that have been harvested previously and incorporated into three-dimensional scaffolds of biodegradable polymers, such as those used to make dissolvable sutures. The entire structure of cells and scaffolding is transplanted into the wound site, where the cells replicate, reorganize and form new tissue. At the same time, the artificial polymers break down, leaving only a completely natural final product in the body-a neo-organ. The creation of neo-organs applies the basic knowledge gained in biology over the past few decades to the problems of tissue and organ reconstruction, just as advances in materials science make possible entirely new types of architectural design.