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Designing organs for medical transplantation

May 30, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Seventeen people die each day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant, but that may not always be the case. Thanks to breakthrough science, organ donation could actually one day become obsolete.

Currently 105,000 people are waiting for an organ to save their life, from kidneys to lungs to livers, the list is long.

Life is now being designed in the lab. Organs, limbs, wombs and even skin are being grown from a single cell.

Stephen Bruno waited 16 years for a liver transplant.

"You're not living. You're surviving, and you're not sure of when it's going to come, or even if it's going to come," said Bruno.

It finally came. What's happening inside one laboratory could put an end to the wait Bruno and thousands of others face each year. Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center are the first in the world to use human liver cells to create miniature livers.

"For the first time, we might have a solution to bypass liver transplantation, which is a major health problem throughout the world," said Dr. Shay Soker, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Within a year, Harvard doctor Joseph Vacanti will be transplanting ears grown on a scaffold onto a person. Vacanti became known throughout the world in the 1990s when he grew a human ear on the back of a mouse. Now he's using a person's own stem cells to do the very same thing.

"Ideally, it would be indistinguishable from a normal ear," said Vacanti.

But it doesn't stop there. Scientists at Cornell University are developing artificial wombs in which embryos can grow outside of a woman's body.

In Cincinnati, scientists are testing skin cells that can sweat, tan and fight off infection.

Zebrafish are being studied at Duke University. The way they can regenerate their fins could help scientists discover how to regenerate limbs for amputees.

The first artificial cell was born in Craig Venter's laboratory, which raises the question: Is the life line being crossed?

"It does raise concerns that engineers are running amok in biology labs and that they are playing God," said Dr. James Collins, professor of biomedical engineering, Boston University.

But researchers stress they are not creating life, only modifying life by working with cells that are already living, giving a second chance to millions of people who desperately need it.

The researchers stressed that creating tissues and regeneration is not cloning. It's using already-living cells to build organs from.

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