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Replacement Parts: Creating Artificial Tissues and Organs That Work

November 1996

Move over Robocop, human bodies do better with stimulated cell growth and a stronger understanding of biochemistry.

According to Bob Langer of MIT, the next generation of "artificial" organs will be custom-grown body parts, which, in the end, won't have much that's artificial at all.

NSF-funded Langer and his Harvard colleague Jay Vacanti start these in vitro organs by using computer-aided designs to create plastic versions of skin, cartilage, and internal organs. The polymer model provides a scaffolding. Seed cells are expected to attach to the plastic and grow. Once the cells have covered the scaffolding, the polymer degrades into carbon dioxide and water.

So far, several biomedical companies have used the team's general techniques to create artificial skin and other tissues. These products are in clinical trial, says Langer, and will be distributed within 10 years.

In addition, Langer and Vacanti say, growing more complicated organs isn't as far-fetched as it might seem.

"This [scaffolding] approach is based on the following observations," they write in the journal Science, "i) Every tissue undergoes remodeling; ii) Isolated cells tend to reform the appropriate tissue structure under experimental conditions."

In other words, body parts are constantly being rejuvenated by new cells. And given the correct signals, cells will switch jobs as needed. With skin, the system is working. Other tissues and organs should follow, the researchers write.

While these projects come to fruition, researchers at NSF's newest Engineering Research Center, the University of Washington Engineering Biomaterials (UWEB ) center, are developing a new generation of biomaterials that "talk" to tissue and actively induce healing.

Even though the current generation of medical devices and biomaterials saves and improves the quality of millions of lives, there is room for improvement.

The body does not recognize the molecules that make up plastic, metal, and ceramic implants. And so it isolates these implants, walling them off with scar tissue. The implants--such as glucose sensors or blood vessel replacements--never work as well as they might with normal healing.

Started September 1996, UWEB is headed by bioengineer Buddy Ratner, includes researchers from a wide range of disciplines, and has the corporate support of 3M, Baxter Healthcare, Dow Corning, and others.

The center's approach is to study healing at different levels--from the macro animal models, to the micro, sub-cellular chemistry, explains bioengineer Joan Sanders, leader of the medical applications group.

For example, her group is studying the biochemical signals bodies send out to heal wounds. If implants were designed to encourage cells to send out those signals, potentially the body would "heal" the implant rather than wall it off. "We're getting the cells to do the work for us," she says.

UWEB researchers hope to begin animal trials of the first materials in about three years.

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