Monday, May 6, 2013


Tissue engineers strive to construct whole organs for clinical reconstruction or transplantation from components that did not naturally co-exist or may not even be natural. The world has been in a bit of a tizzy because of two different and unrelated advances that became public within two weeks in April, 2013. In the first, kidneys whose cells were removed but whose microscopic infrastructures were kept intact, were reconstituted with two types of cells (epithelial and endothelial). The kidneys (from rats) exhibited some function both in the laboratory and when transplanted (small amounts of urine in rats). In the second, a 32 month old child whose own trachea did not develop, received the world's first bioartificial trachea  engineered from an artificial nanofiber scaffold and stem cells taken from her own bone marrow. In both cases tissue engineers have accomplished incredible feats.

Just imagine the sequences that could result. Rat kidneys that function after transplantation might lead to the ability to engineer human kidneys following the same principles. Suddenly, there might be a way to help the 100,000 people currently waiting for deceased donor kidneys in the U.S. Others who dared not even dream of trying to qualify for a transplant might now do so.

Clinical success with the bioartificial trachea is even more stunning. Direct application of translational science in a living person. Since the living cellular component is her own, there is no expectation of rejection. No need for immunosuppressive medications. What a win-win situation! How many other ways can you imagine using bioengineered body components to fill in missing body parts caused by congenital defects, disease or trauma? Perhaps now the cause for excitement is clear.

We should also take particular note of the timing of these two announcements. Unlikely that serendipity is involved. Maturation of multiple skills, technologies, concepts and prior developments in a field often combine to make a ripe environment for talented researchers to work in - a sort of perfect scientific storm. These leaps forward could probably not have occurred twenty years ago. But today, the time is right. Let's hope that other exciting announcements follow.