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Tissue Engineering Reaches a New Phase

Tissue Engineering Reaches a New Phase
August 01
13:41 2016

For decades, mankind has searched for a way to create human tissue in order to minimize the risks associated with grafts and organ transplants. But growing human tissue in a lab is incredibly complex, and this goal has proven frustratingly elusive – until now.

Jennifer Elisseef is the director of the Translational Tissue Engineering Center at Johns Hopkins University. She believes the industry is on the verge of reaching a breakthrough. “In the past two years, we’ve seen a real evolution in thinking – both in the science and in the practical aspect of tissue engineering,” explains Elisseef.

“People are sniffing out that tissue engineering is at a unique stage. You’re seeing a convergence of the science, clinical, regulatory, and manufacturing, all sort of combining and connecting together.”

This is a big change from previous years, in which pharmaceutical companies have been hesitant to invest in tissue engineering technologies.

A few projects in the works:

Scientists at Harvard are using 3-D bioprinters to layer cells (like ink) to form blood vessels.

Australian company Mesoblast is using stem cells to develop lab-grown tissues that could be used for blood vessel formation and organ repair.

In North Carolina, biotech startup Humacyte is geared up to begin late-stage clinical trials on artificial blood vessels.

In California, a San Diego startup called Organovo is using 3-D printing to build entire organs for transplant.

“Tissue engineering has to mature a bit as a market,” says Organovo CEO Keith Murphy. “The science is finally getting to the point where it’s becoming attractive to do these things.”

Name any tissue in the body, and you can bet it’s being worked on in a lab somewhere, says bioengineer and entrepreneur Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Humacyte founder Dr. Laura Niklason began working in Robert Langer’s lab after watching a “barbaric” heart surgery in which doctors hacked into a patient’s legs, arms, and abdomen just to find blood vessels suitable for grafting.

“At the time, I remember thinking: We know a lot about how blood vessels grow, heal, and develop. Why can’t we take that into the lab, and grow them for patients who need them?” Niklason founded Humacyte in 2004 to solve that very problem.

Niklason is currently working on a “stealth implant” – a graft that contains no foreign DNA and would thus eliminate the risk of a patient’s body rejecting it.

Each graft is “grown” within a womb-like plastic sack. All the sacks are “fed” by a central bioreactor, which supplies all the amino acids, vitamins, and chemicals the cells need to grow properly.

“We set up a miniature, simplified human body where we’ve got a pulse that mimics that beat of a heart,” explains Niklason. “After all, if these cells aren’t stretched in a way that mimics how arteries expand and contract every time a heart beats, then the resulting tissue will be too weak to function in the body.”

The fledgling arteries are extremely delicate. “We need to feed them vitamin C all the time, or they get scurvy,” says Niklason.

At the end of the “incubation period,” excess cells are washed from the grafts and the “stealth implants” are ready to be injected into a human body.

Niklason is currently experimenting with her lab-grown blood vessels in hemodialysis – a process that uses implanted veins as a pathway to remove waste from the blood of individuals with kidney failure. Her most recent hemodialysis trial saw promising results last month, and Niklason is now preparing to launch an expanded trial involving 350 patients. Results are expected by 2018.

In regards to the future of the industry, Langer says that some applications will be more useful than others. “Tissues that are more structural in nature will be easier to create than those that are more functional in nature. I think we’ll see engineered skin, cartilage, and blood vessels on a commercial scale before we see things like the liver, pancreas, heart, or brain.

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