Signs of the Times: Engineered Organs in the Popular Press

This is the age of biotech and wonders, for all it seems far too slow and prosaic when you're living it a day at a time. By way of a reminder, here's a piece from the U.S.News on tissue engineering of new organs that focuses on the work of Tengion and Anthony Atala:

Growing a bladder or a body part such as a blood vessel takes about six weeks. To create an artery, say, Atala plucks some of the immature cells that make up arterial lining and muscle from a sample of the patient's blood and incubates them by the billions in liquid nutrient. The cell-rich soup is then painted on a tube-shaped scaffold made from flexible collagen, like the tissue that forms the nose. (The collagen will gradually disintegrate once the vessel is in place.) The cells mature, multiply further, and form an artery. A small machine exercises the vessel, conditioning it to function normally after it is implanted.

Building organs such as bladders and blood vessels, which have only a few different types of cells, has become almost routine for Atala's lab. A heart or pancreas is far more complex and challenging.

This is the heroic story template in which the field of vision is narrowed (one might say dumbed) down to a single face, emblematic of thousands who are performing important work in the field. That's the way the popular press works, but remember that when journalists point out one groundbreaking fellow, there are dozens of others left unmentioned in the backdrop, folk with their own labs, important projects, and promising results. Tissue engineering is a large and very active field now, constrained far more by regulatory costs and barriers than by any technical hurdles.

Given the present pace of development, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a couple of different methods of producing organic replacements for all the major human organs (except for the brain of course) to be ready for use by 2020 - though whether they will be legally available in the US given the state of the FDA is another question entirely. The state of medical regulation is so far removed from sensible considerations of risk and readiness that countless potential therapies languish unused, undeveloped, and unrefined, along with whatever new information researchers might have learned from more widespread usage.

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