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Raoul's New Thumb

Friday marked a medical milestone, and it gave the world a glimpse at how doctors may soon treat diseased or injured bone. By all accounts, the operation went very well.

Raoul Murcia, 37, made medical history Friday morning when, for the first time ever, doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center used his own bone cells in an attempt to regrow a missing bone. Murcia, a factory worker, lost the bone in his left thumb in an accident.

A team led by Dr. Charles Vacanti, who is known for growing a human-shaped ear on the back of a mouse, implanted a coral scaffold into Murcia's thumb. Dr. Vacanti injected that scaffold with the patient's own bone cells. It's expected those cells will eventually develop a blood supply and become living bone.

"The coral will eventually dissolve," says Dr. Vacanti. "The first milestone was demonstrating that you can grow any tissue, living tissue, in an animal. The next milestone is to demonstrate that you can grow living tissue in a human using the human's own cells."

Dr. Vacanti's team hopes to perform the second part of the operation on Murcia's thumb in about 12 weeks.

"I believe that with the second operation, we may be able to line that bone with cartilage to allow it to slide smoothly over the lower bone in this thumb," Dr. Vacanti explains. "This should bring back not only some function, but also motion in the thumb."

Dr. Vacanti says if this procedure is successful, there is tremendous potential to grow other human organs. "I believe that tissue-engineered bone will become commonplace within the next decade, and possibly within the next five years," he says.

The doctor also estimated that, for tissues of the liver and kidney, it may be as soon as 10 years, or as many as several decades. For nerves, and even segments of the brain or spinal cord, says Dr. Vacanti. "It may be a decade. It may be less than a decade."

Dr. Senay says the bone will stop growing at a certain point because doctors "actually know how many cells to inject and the number of cells dictate how long the bone grows for."

What's next? Says Dr. Senay, "One of the things they are working on is the TMJ (tempro-mandibular joint). If this works, it will open up the door wide to almost any bone in the body."

Spinal cord regeneration is also on the horizon. Reports Dr. Senay, "Using the same principles of tissue engineering, replacing nerves that have been lost due to disease or injury in the same way they have done with the bone. Still many years away but very promising."

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