Medical science is fast approaching the point at which doctors will routinely transplant major organs grown from a patient’s own cells.
No doubt, that would be huge. First, it would get around a major hurdle that now limits live-saving transplants. The waiting list for new organs is so long some patients die before they can get their operations.
Second, the body’s immune system often rejects the new organ as an “invader.” To combat this, patients must take strong drugs that can have some pretty severe side effects.
Doctors have said for decades that “regenerative medicine” would yield custom-made organs. And for just as long it’s remained more theory than practice.
Just last month, a team from Johns Hopkins said it had rebuilt an ear for a cancer patient using the woman’s own tissue. Not only that, but they actually “grew” the ear inside the woman’s forearm.
As I see it, this is a stunning achievement that reflects the rapid progress science is making in the Era of Radical Change. We are moving quickly toward a time when living to 100 will become the norm — and you’ll remain in robust health.
Even the ear-transplant patient says she’s amazed how quickly things are progressing.
“When my doctors told me reconstruction was possible, I thought it was too good to be true,” said Sherrie Walter, a working mother of two. “It sounded like science fiction.”
But it turned out to be science fact.
Indeed, this new ear transplant is one of several recent advances doctors have scored with regenerative medicine. In a moment, I will give you those details.
However, we first need to put the John Hopkins breakthrough in context. This team clearly faced a daunting task.
See, the surgery itself was highly complex. It required six operations spanning 20 months. And the doctors had a tough time finding the right kind of tissue needed to grow Walter’s new ear.
The cancer had become so severe, doctors removed not just her ear but also cut out nearby parts of her, neck, gland, lymph, and skull tissue to which her tumor had spread.
Thus, Walter lost the part of her skull where doctors could have attached a prosthetic. And losing so much tissue limited the options for building a new ear from existing tissue.
For this type of surgery, doctors prefer to use facial and neck skin. But in this case, they didn’t have that option.
This is the part I think is pure genius — in looking for a second choice of tissue, the team turned instead to her forearm.
To make the ear, they took out pieces of Walter’s rib cartilage. Then they carved and stitched the stuff together in a semicircular pattern designed to match Walter’s other ear.
After that, they implanted the skinless ear in her forearm. There it “grew” for four months, getting nutrients from its own blood vessels.
Walter received the new ear last January but the doctors only disclosed the procedure three weeks ago. The team also anchored a hearing aid to Walter’s bone.
Lead surgeon Dr. Patrick Byrne noted this type of work isn’t just taxing for the doctors…
“Patients must have the physical and emotional courage, and the patience, to deal with these exhausting procedures,” he said.
Meantime, other teams have also reported amazing results in this field. Two of those case studies appeared in a recent issue of the New York Times.
The first involves what the paper said is the first time anyone had received an organ tailor-made from his own cells. It recounts the plight of a patient from Iceland who had a tumor the size of a golf ball in his windpipe.
In June 2011, doctors at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden built the first “bioartificial” organ for the man. They made it out of the patient’s cells combined with plastic.
The Swedish team made an “exact copy” of the patient’s windpipe from a fibrous type of plastic seeded with stem cells culled from his bone marrow. They placed it in a bioreactor where it spun for 18 hours. Then they cut out the cancerous windpipe and replaced it with the hybrid transplant.
Now, 15 months later, the patient is alive, breathes normally and has time to spend with his two small children.
In the second case, a sergeant in the U.S. Army grew new leg muscle after he received “scaffolding” from a pig. It’s a type of material that underlies all tissues and organ in humans and other animals.
Last fall, his doctor removed scar tissue from the soldier’s leg and replaced it with material from a pig’s urinary bladder. Soon, the sergeant’s leg starting growing new muscle. Today, he walks normally and even runs on a treadmill.
Let me close by noting I believe these cases prove the dawn of regenerative medicine really is at hand.
I predict this whole field will become common in just a few short years. That will dramatically improve the lives of millions around the planet.
And that’s another great thing about the Era of Radical Change. Not only are these advances amazing in themselves — they give us all plenty of hope.