Grow Your Own Replacement Parts

a human bladder grown with lab-grown tissue

About 98,000 people are on a waiting list for transplants right now. Many of them will die before they get one. Now, a new generation of researchers is changing that, one cell at a time. This is the first in a two-part CBS News series on the innovative field of regenerative medicine. Scroll to the end for more information.

In what you might call the laboratory of the future, Dr Anthony Atala is manufacturing body parts.

"Here you see an engineered blood vessel," he said. "You can actually see the vessel beating."

From blood vessels to muscle tissue, Atala and his team at Wake Forest University believe that in theory anything inside the body can be grown outside the body, CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports. And it's real: They've made 18 different types of tissue so far.

"That's a heart valve?" Andrews asked.

Atala said: "This is an engineered heart valve."

What he pointed to was a pulsing heart valve to be transplanted into a sheep.

"When people ask me 'what do you do,' we grow tissues and organs," he said. "We are making body parts that we can implant right back into patients."

Once considered a Frankenstein fantasy, the field of regenerative medicine is on the verge of unimagined breakthroughs. Scientists believe every part of the body has cells capable of regeneration - all researchers need to do is isolate those cells and coax them to grow.

And they use heart cells in an ink jet printer.

In the lab CBS News toured, the heart of a mouse was being made - a heart they grew layer by layer, by spraying the cells with a printer.

"So your heart cell is programmed to make more heart tissue, your bladder cells are programmed to make more bladder cells," Atala explained.

And it's Atala's work with human bladders that's truly on the frontier. In a clinical trial at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, a patient got a bladder transplant - with a new bladder grown from her own cells.

Using Atala's regeneration techniques, her bladder cells were isolated, multiplied and seeded onto a biodegradable scaffold. Eight weeks later, her new bladder is in the operating room ready for transplant.

Dr. Patrick Shenot is her transplant surgeon.

"Its very much the future, but its today," Shenot said. "We are doing this today."

What's coming from this technology is a future of highly personal, mail-order medicine, where in order to cure your disease, your doctor will order you a replacement organ or body part and it will be custom made for you, using your own cells.

For the tens of thousands of patients who need organ transplants, this technology brings hope.

Hugh Snyder needs a bladder. And it could be a bladder from his own cells.

"Yeah. I would never have thought this ... possible," Snyder said.

Corporate America already sees what's possible. The Tengion Company has bought the license, built the factory, and is already making the bladders developed at Wake Forest.

"We're actually building a very real business around a very real and compelling patient need," said Dr. Steven Nichtberger, Tengion's CEO.

He says the company also plans to mass-produce blood vessels and kidneys.

"In regenerative medicine, I think it is similar to the semiconductor industry of the 1980s," Nichtberger said. "You don't know where its going to go, but you know its big."

This brand-new kind of medicine and this brand-new industry are set to change the landscape for transplanting organs.

Patients in the future, instead of waiting years for a donated organ, will wait a few weeks and … grow their own.

For more on regenerative medicine and organ transplants, check out:
  • The McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
  • The non-profit United Network for Organ Sharing.
  • The non-profit Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
  • The non-profit organ and tissue donation group, Gift Of Life Organ Donation.
  • Wake Forest University.
  • Tengion Company.
    • Wyatt Andrews
      Wyatt Andrews

      Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.