We expect scientists and engineers to provide us with the truth. And, generally, they do. And, there are times when scientists and engineers are allowed to dream and tell us their dreams. The problem is when folks take those talks out of context and confuse the general public.
This happened last year at the TED (technology, entertainment, and design) conference. Dr. Anthony Atala, a brilliant researcher at Wake Forest University (Institute of Regenerative Medicine) presented an interesting talk. But some people derived the impression he was talking about something already completed- which it was not. The title above is exactly what was reported in the media.
I understand this phenomenon well. Some 30 years ago, a large firm announced at a very selective medical conference that it had developed a new dialysis product that would be undergoing clinical trials immediately. My client’s firm would have been devastated by such an introduction. We worked feverishly to develop our own product in this area and succeeded. Within two years of that (incorrect, as it turns out) announcement, our product was already in clinical trials- and in the marketplace soon after.
On the other hand, we also expected a true artificial kidney would have been available a decade ago. With advances in research on enzymes, materials, and stem cells- and the money involved in this market- we had no doubts that such a product would be sold before the advent of the 21st century. (We even developed a very large prototype.) In spite of all that research, the political impediments to stem cells rendered this expectation incorrect. (Unfortunately for us, we should have continued what we were doing- with large(r) financial rewards. Ah, well, so much for exit plans.)
Back to the original issue, where Dr. Atala was presenting his research in Long Beach last March. He described the three challenges to building a true artificial organ. Biomaterials, cells, and vascularity. These areas have been the impediments for decades. Biomaterials research exploded in the 1960s and has been steadily improving and progressing ever since. I won’t even bother talking about stem cells, since it only depresses me that the politicians still impede their use. Vascularity- the ability to have blood circulate in the organ is an issue that has just about been conquered now, through the use of scaffolding, among other innovations. [NOTE: you can find more about most of these subjects by using the keyword search on this blog- or the rest of the internet.] Depending upon the size and complexity of the organ involved, you can see that the three issues have been generally conquered. But, still there is no complete “large” artificial organ like a liver, a kidney, or a heart.
Dr. Atala explained the use of smart bombs to inject a scaffold into the body, have the “scaffold” attach to a damaged structure, and afford the patient’s own cells to grow over and through the scaffold to repair the structure perfectly. We can also develop heart valves, artificial bladders ex vivo (in the laboratory for implantation later)- which are in use.
The next step in organ development is to employ “printers” that print with cells on a substrate, and using multiple passes to create three dimensional structures, such as bone. This production of bone has been done and implanted in patients successfully. (Instead of ink, the printers are loaded with biomaterials and cells, which are then “printed” on a structure (a scaffold) providing them in specific shapes.
Dr. Atala described the scanning of a patient’s wound, and then following it up with a printer that imprints the cells in a gel onto a wound. But, that is where the science stopped and potential research was discussed. He clearly stated that the impediment or breakthrough required is to develop a larger scanner and printer that that could manufacture (“print”) larger organs. He showed the printer on the stage that was printing a kidney structure- a process that takes seven hours or so. However, those kidneys are prototypes. Among other issues blocking their use is vascularity. (Although not mentioned, I am sure cells that produce the hormones are also another issue.)
The words: “These experiments sometimes work- and it’s cool when they do”. Yet, some reported that an artificial kidney was produced on stage. It wasn’t. A prototype kidney was shown. But, it will happen- soon!
(You can see the video presentation here: http://blog.ted.com/2011/03/07/printing-a-human-kidney-anthony-atala-on-ted-com/)