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Colloquium speaker addresses future of organ regeneration through technology

By Kimberly Delande
On October 5, 2011

  • Anthony Atala, a Urologist and the Director of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, spoke at last nights Honors Colloquium in Edwards Auditorium about his work and how regenerative medicine is shaping the future in medical science. Teresa Kelly



In the fourth installment of this semester's honors colloquium, Anthony Atala, chair of the department of urology at the Wake Forest University for Medicine, discussed the advances of regenerative medicine and how a patient's own cells can be used to help them regrow injured organs.

The University of Rhode Island welcomed Atala to Edwards Hall last night. He began the lecture by talking about how the new field of regenerative medicine is progressing, in order to go along with this year's colloquium theme of the future.

Atala reminded the audience that only fifty years ago, in 1954, surgeons were able to transplant an organ (a kidney) into a human for the first time. Now, the technology has rapidly advanced, and surgeons are able to regrow organs, such as skin, kidneys, bladders, urethras, and uteruses. 

"Is this science fiction? Not really," Atala said. "We see it in biology all the time."

He spoke about the process a surgeon goes through in order to regenerate an organ. The easiest organs to regenerate are flat organs, such as skin. Tubular and solid organs, such as the kidney and liver, were a lot harder for him to tackle.

To regenerate skin, the surgeon simply takes a bit of cells, the size of less than half a postage stamp, from the patient, mixes it with a liquid to keep the cells alive, and sprays it back onto the patient. In the event the patient was immobile, a machine would scan the patient, take their data (cells), deliver them to a printer, and the printer would eject a sticky sheet of gel cells to administer to the patient. This would in return help regenerate his skin.

Kidneys, however, are a different story.

Atala spoke about the problems a surgeon faces in order to get the proper cells for this procedure. While taking cells from a patient is usually the best way to perform the surgery, sometimes. the cells won't grow as rapidly as they need to. Atala said he and his team found that taking cells from amniotic fluid and placentas were an alternative to using the patient's cells. Cells from placenta and amniotic fluid grow rapidly and would not form tumors in the patient.

"We want to make sure that our system is methodically sound," Atala said. "We always ask ourselves, ‘would we put these tissues into a loved one?' before we start the procedure. Only if the answer is yes do we continue on with the trial."

Near the end of the presentation, Atala took a moment to play a short clip which interviewed a former patient. Luke M., the patient, had surgery ten years ago to engineer a new bladder for him out of his old cells. Before surgery, he said, he had been facing a lifetime of dialysis. He could barely get out of bed, was constantly missing school, and couldn't play basketball with his friends without feeling faint.

"After surgery, I was able to do more things, like wrestle in high school," Luke said. "I even became captain of the team. Because they used my own cells to build this bladder, I got it for life. So I'm all set."

Atala closed the lecture by reminding the audience how 50 years ago, the iron lung was thought to be revolutionary technology. Nowadays, he said, we look back on such technology and think, "boy, wasn't that primitive?" According to Atala, the goal of medical science is to keep pushing forward and breaking boundaries, so that in the next 50 years, people can look back on his technology and find it primitive as well.

"My goal tonight was to make this look easy to you," Atala said. "But I assure you, the work we do is anything but easy. We still have many challenges ahead, but the promise this field holds is to try and make our patients better."

Next Tuesday, the ‘Are You Ready for the Future?' lecture will be held at 7:30 PM at Edwards Hall. James Collins,an  engineer, will discuss new methods to reprogram bacteria. The event is free, and the public is welcome to attend.

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