Thousands wait in vain for organ transplants; soldiers return from battle horribly maimed. There is only so much medicine can do, but we may be on the path to a new technology in which quite literally, we will be growing new body parts.
It's called "regenerative medicine," where cells in the human body are manipulated into regrowing tissue.
As we first reported last December, researchers have so far created beating hearts, ears and bladders. Biotech companies and the Pentagon have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research that could profoundly change millions of lives.
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Web Extra: Making Body Parts
Web Extra: Growing and Ear
Web Extra: Kaitlyne's Story
Dr. Anthony Atala runs the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. You name the body part, chances are Dr. Atala is trying to grow one.
"Currently at the institute we're working on over 22 different tissues and organs," Dr. Atala told 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer.
According to Atala, they are working on regenerating bladders, kidneys, lungs and more. "The possibilities really are endless," he said.
"Are you suggesting a remarkable future when organs fail, we simply replace them and live to 120? 150?" Safer asked.
"Well, the hope for the future is that if you do have a patient who has organ failure, you don't want that patient to die because you're waiting for an organ," Atala said. "People are dying every day on the transplant wait list. So the hope of the field is that some day we can provide replacement tissues and organs that can be used to help them survive."
Atala presides over the world's largest lab devoted to bioengineering body parts. He has made everything from components of fingers to kidneys - it's enough to make Dr. Frankenstein jealous.
Atala says every organ in our body contains special stem cells that are unique to each body part. The key to regeneration, he says, is to isolate and then multiply those cells until there are enough to cover a mold of that particular body part.
Atala showed Safer a bladder that was growing in the lab. "And you can see here that we actually create the three dimensional mold first. This is actually coated with cells and it's done one layer at a time. It's very much like baking a layer cake."
It's sort of surgery as pastry making.
"But, how do those cells know - it's a really stupid question, I understand - but how do the bladder cells know they should be functioning as bladder cells?" Safer asked.
"The cells know exactly what to do. Every single cell in your body has all the genetic information to create a whole new you. So if you place that cell in the right environment, it'll be programmed to do what it's supposed to do," Atala explained.
He says some body parts are simpler to make than others.
"And you can see here the mold shaped like an ear. And then what we do is we start seeding these with cells. And then this is actually the fully engineered ear," he said. "The molds are designed to degrade over time. So as the tissue forms the mold goes away."
"If that was for a child, would that grow with the child?" Safer asked, looking at the mold.
"Yes," Atala said. "The body does recognize them as their own and it does grow with the child."
Depending on the body part, Atala says the whole process can take six to eight weeks.
Atala showed Safer a beating, engineered heart valve. He says that human testing of heart valves and blood vessels will begin within five years. He has already grown and transplanted livers in mice.
Asked if the mouse livers are functioning, Atala said, "Yeah. And the tissue actually starts making what you're supposed to see. Like for the liver, we actually are able to see the functionality that you would expect from the liver."
And there's Kaitlyne McNamara, a college student who was born with Spina bifida which caused her bladder to fail. Nine years ago, Kaitlyne, along with eight other patients, received new bladders grown from their own cells outside the body.
She says the procedure changed her life. "I never even knew I could get this far. I'm just living a normal adult life."