A few years ago, Dr. Anthony Atala’s lab at Wake Forest University got good at making ears. They were growing new ears on a scaffold using patient’s cells, because so many soldiers were losing their ears in explosions. Now the Department of Defense has a project that’s closer to Atala’s heart: making new genitals for soldiers who have stepped on bombs.
Other labs are still moving forward with the ear project for the military. But Atala has special expertise dating back to his days as a pediatric urologist. He’s already grown bladders using a patient’s own cells, and he’s made penises that rabbits were able to put to their proper use, fathering litters of new little bunnies. He hopes to use this expertise to help rebuild the bodies of veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as men and boys injured in car accidents.
Atala is one of the pioneers of regenerative medicine. But the field has taken off in a big way, attracting biotechnology companies, the U.S. military and academic labs, which are working to literally make the blind see and the lame walk again. They’re perfecting spray-on skin and aim to mass-produce new body parts using bioprinters based on the jet printers attached to your home computer.
“Right now, the way these organs are made is creating them one by one. By bringing the bioprinting in, we can scale it up,” says Atala, whose lab has contracts with the four-year-old Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), biotechnology companies and private foundations.
All of this technology is years away from the doctor’s office. The most advanced treatments have just begun the very earliest stages of human testing. But all evidence points to the tantalizing prospect of grow-your-own organs and possibly even limbs within a decade or so, and some approaches, such as muscle transplants and spray-on skin, are helping a lucky few now.
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