Imagine losing an arm, a leg or a breast to cancer or motor accident, and having it replaced with a perfect brand new one created with your stem cell. This would mean an end to prosthesis (artificial body part) and donated body parts, you will say. But this is no fairy tale; scientists are now growing noses, ears and other body parts in the laboratory using stem cells.
The laboratory at London’s Royal Free hospital is one of the several labs around the world that are already growing custommade organs and a handful of patients have received them. With this feat, the researchers hope they will soon be able to transplant more types of body parts into patients.
“It’s like making a cake, we just use a different kind of oven,” said Alexander Seifalian at University College London, the scientist leading the effort
Last year, he and his team made a nose for a British man who lost his to cancer. Stem cells were taken from the patient’s fat and grown in the lab for two weeks before being used to cover the nose scaffold.
On how the body parts are grown, Seifalian says the new body part begins as a glass mould, based on the original. The glass mould is sprayed with a synthetic honeycomb- like material to create a framework for stem cells to cling to.
“The mould is then removed and the honey- comb covered with millions of blank cells later turns into the cartilage of the organ.
Meanwhile, the skin on another area of the body is gradually stretched by a small balloon placed under the surface and inflated until it is loose enough to accommodate the organ.
After several months, the body part is taken out from under the skin and sewn into the right place”, he said.
Seifalian and his team are creating other organs including coronary arteries and ears.
“Ears are harder to make than noses because you have to get all the contours right and the skin is pulled tight so you see its entire structure,” said Dr Michelle Griffin, a plastic surgeon who has made dozens of ears and noses in Seifalian’s lab.
“At the moment, children who need new ears have to go through a really invasive procedure involving taking cartilage from their ribs,” Griffin said, adding that taking fat cells from patients’ abdomens to add to a lab-made ear scaffold would be far easier than the multiple procedures often necessary to carve an ear from their ribs.
Griffin revealed that they plan to eventually create an entirely synthetic face but must first prove their polymer scaffolds won’t accidentally burst out of the skin.
“Scientists have to get things like noses and ears right before we can move onto something like a kidney, lungs or a liver, which is much more complicated,” said Eileen Gentleman, a stem cell expert at King’s College London, who is not involved in Seifalian’s research.
With this latest innovation, some scientists have predicted that lab-made organs will soon cease to be experimental.
“I’m convinced engineered organs are going to be on the market soon,” said Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, a professor of transplantation biology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
She has transferred lab-made blood vessels into a handful of patients and plans to offer them more widely by 2016, pending regulatory approval. Still, she acknowledged doctors will have to watch closely for any long-term side effects, including the possibility of a higher cancer risk.
Seifalian estimated about 10 million pounds ($16 million) has gone into his research since 2005 but said he hoped lab-made organs would one day be available for a few hundred dollars.
“If people are not that fussy, we could manufacture different sizes of noses so the surgeon could choose a size and tailor it for patients before implanting it.
“People think your nose is very individual and personal but this is something that we could mass produce like in a factory one day,” he said.
Meanwhile, a cancer patient from Poland, David Barwell has his mouth and tongue rebuilt using tissue from his arm after a tumour was removed from his throat. The surgeons had to cut away the bottom of his mouth and tongue while trying to remove the tumour. But the medics were able to use skin and blood vessels from his arm to rebuild the oral cavity, and re-model his tongue, allowing him to eat drink and hopefully speak again.