In the 1970s and 1980s, tissue engineers began working on growing replacement organs for transplantation into patients. While scientists are still targeting that goal, much of the tissue engineering research [is] also focused on creating tissue that can be used in the lab to model human disease and test potential new drugs.
Another near-term goal for tissue engineers is developing regenerative therapies that help promote wound healing. [Healthy cells] sitting adjacent to diseased tissues can influence the biology of repair and regeneration, [which might be achieved via] implantable scaffolds embedded with endothelial cells, which secrete a vast array of proteins that respond to injury. Endothelial cells, normally found lining blood vessels, could help repair damage caused by angioplasty or other surgical interventions; smoke inhalation; and cancer or cardiovascular disease. The implants are now in clinical trials to treat blood-vessel injuries caused by the needles used to perform dialysis in patients with kidney failure.
One major challenge for designing implantable organs is that the tissues need to include blood vessels that can connect to the patient's own blood supply. [Researchers] are working on inducing blood vessels to form by growing cells on nanopatterned surfaces, [and] recently developed 3-D liver tissues that include their own network of blood vessels. Though still a long-term goal, being able to regenerate new organs could have a great impact on the future of health care. "It's the kind of thing that can transform society. You can't have a drug that will grow a new liver or a new heart, so this could be huge."