How Close Are We to Making Like Salamanders and Regenerating Our Own Organs?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 9 2012 2:14 PM

How Close Are We to Making Like Salamanders and Regenerating Our Own Organs?

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A Japanese giant salamander

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Right now, more than 116,000 people are on the U.S. organ transplant waiting list. But what if they could just regrow their own livers, hearts, and kidneys, even 3-D print them?

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is working to make that a reality. Speaking today at Ciudad de las Ideas, an annual conference about big ideas held in Puebla, Mexico, and sponsored by Grupo Salinas, Atala asked, “If a salamander can do it, why can’t we?” 

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Atala and his fellow researchers can take a person’s own cells and use them to patch damaged areas on organs. They can load cells into a spray bottle and squirt them on burned skin to help those with bad burns. And that’s just the beginning.

You may remember Atala from his 2010 TED talk, which went viral. But in the mere two years since then, he and his team have made significant advances, he says. In 2011, they announced that they had developed a technique to grow engineered urethras—a part of the body that most of us take for granted. It was used to help several Mexican boys whose urethras were damaged in car accidents. "When they first came in, they had a leg bag that drains urine, and they have to carry this bag everywhere they go,” he told NPR. After the procedure, they became “totally normal.” Actually, by the time he gave the TED talk in 2010, the procedure had already been a success—but Atala told me, “We wait five years to publish things.” That way, they can carefully evaluate whether the new organs work.

In Puebla, Atala described other cutting-edge therapies he’s working on, like using a scanner and 3-D printer to create rapid treatment for soldiers wounded on the battlefield. (That project is being carried out in conjunction with the Department of Defense.)

So how long until regenerative medicine can make the agonizingly long transplant waiting list a thing of the past? Within the next decade, Atala predicts, “we will see partial replacements of [some] organs—not the entire replacement, but many times that’s all we need.” Of course, the very necessary regulatory process will have to be carried out before there is widespread use of regenerated organs. Atala notes that the average drug takes 15.5 years to be approved in the United States, and regenerative medicine is neither drug nor medical device, but a combination thereof, which makes approval even more complicated. However, he tells me, the FDA has recently created an Office of Combined Products that will help this process run a bit more smoothly.

As Atala noted in his talk, regenerative medicine isn’t a wholly new field—in fact, in the 1930s, famed aviator Charles Lindberg, of all people, co-authored a book on the subject. But soon, perhaps, the process will truly take flight.

Disclosure: The Azteca Foundation, the foundation arm of the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Salinas, provided funding for my trip to Ciudad de las Ideas.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.