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Engineering intestines through stem cells

August 2, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Did you know that every two weeks your intestine completely regenerates its lining? It's because of this incredible regenerative capacity that doctors believe intestines are the perfect organ to re-grow. It's a breakthrough that researchers hope will help children born with gastrointestinal defects.

At 18 weeks pregnant, Stacy Lara was told something was terribly wrong with her son Nathan.

"He had quite a bit of bowel outside of his abdomen," said Lara.

Nathan had a birth defect that caused his intestine to grow outside of his body.

"He really only has a few inches of intestine, whereas a baby this age would normally have maybe 6 to 8 feet of intestine," said Dr. Russell Merritt, Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

For Nathan that means a lifetime of being fed through a tube, or a transplant, but Dr. Tracy Grikscheit hopes a discovery in her lab can change the prognosis for Nathan and other children like him.

"We've been able to show that we can make every part of the gastrointestinal tract," said Grikscheit. "We can make esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon."

After children have surgery, doctors take tissue from the waste left over and then re-grow the cells in the lab, and within months an organ can be made.

Grikscheit says it would eliminate the risk of organ rejection and a lifetime of medication.

"If we were able to make engineered intestine from your own cells, it would be part of you, grow with you. It would self-repair," said Grikscheit.

It's a medical breakthrough that could have patients healing themselves.

Dr. Grikscheit recently received a $3.4-million grant to get started on a clinical trial studying engineered intestines.