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New Vistas: Tissue Engineering

Carson McNatt is a typical 10-month-old boy. He is typical, except for his right ear.

"It is called Microtia, which means that his ear is small--or the external ear has not been formed fully." said his mother.

His parents Sue and Terry, took Carson to Dr. Roland Eavey at the Massachusetts eye and ear infirmary--one of the world's specialists in treating this rare disorder.

Dr. Roland Eavey said, "When he is about six years of age, he'll be able to undergo a surgical procedure to put a framework under here to give him the shape of an ear."

Currently, the only way to do that would be to remove the cartilage from three of Connor's ribs and carve it into the shape of an ear. It's a serious procedure that will leave him with significant scarring.

"As exhilarating as it can be to give a kid an ear, it's also frustrating (emotional) to see that you have to borrow tissue somewhere else on this child and give that child a deformity elsewhere, said Eavey.

But by the time Carson is ready to have an operation to repair his ear, he may be in line for a remarkable new technology being developed here at the University of Massachusetts. A technology that won't just fashion him an ear from existing tissue, but through tissue engineering--actually grow him a new one.

Just one of the wonders Dr. Charles Vacanti of the U-Mass medical center has created and his most memorable to date is this now-famous mouse with a human-shaped ear growing on its back. The ear was made from cow cartilage which grows much more easily than human tissue, but Vacanti has since been able to grow ears made of human cartilage in mice.

And, it's not just ears, Vacanti is creating, but other structures like a windpipe and hard to repair bone. He is also found a way to make nerve cells divide and grow--a potential treatment for brain and spinal cord injuries. Other scientists are growing organ tissue--and Vacanti forsees a day when injured or ill people will have replacement parts grown for them.

To engineer tissue, Vacanti first molds a biodegradable scaffold in the shape of the body part, then covers it with the appropriate cells. As the cells grow the scaffold melts away, (taking ear out of bottle) leaving what just a few years ago, would have seemed impossible.

"Hopefully, it will be taken for granted in 10 years, that people will just assume that if they do serious damage, that they can just go in and have the tissue replaced," said Vacanti.

Tissue engineering is still in its infancy. But researchers are moving ever closer to the day when this incredible picture is not of a mouse, but of a child.

For John Robert's full report, click above.

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