WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (CBS 2) – Right now there are more than 112,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant and many will never receive one.
But what if a doctor could grow replacement organs and body parts in the lab -- from your own cells?
As CBS 2's Dr. Max Gomez found out, it's already being done.
Luke Masalla looks like a pretty normal 20-year-old, but he's part of a very unusual club.
Luke's bladder was grown in a lab.
"I was in kidney failure and my bladder was sending fluid back up into my kidneys and damaging them," Masalla said.
Luke's own bladder didn't work properly because he was born with spina bifida and his doctors were out of options.
That's when Luke's parents took him to see Dr. Anthony Atala who proposed a science fiction-like solution -- grow a new bladder.
"We take a very small piece of tissue from the specific injured or deceased organ less then half the size of a postage stamp. We then take those cells, grow those cells outside the body," Dr. Atala said.
A bio-degradable mold is soaked and seeded with nutrients and the stem cells from Luke's own bladder. After incubation in a bio-reactor, the new bladder was put into Luke.
"My kidneys are doing great. I …last summer I went for my yearly check up in Boston and they look better then they ever," Luke said.
At the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina there are labs that take the stem cells and multiply and grow them. Other labs make biodegradable scaffolds that the cells are then sprayed onto and then they are all cooked in something called a bio-reactor to get them ready for human use.
"At the institute we are growing over 20 different types of tissues and organs now some of these we've already put into patients," Dr. Atala said.
Those tissues and organs include lab-grown arteries, ears, finger bones, urethras and artificial heart valves, again grown from human cells. Replacement human skin for burn victims and even tiny muscles are being grown.
Then there are some really ambitious projects.
"The most complex organs are the solid organs like the liver, the heart, the kidney, because you have a lot more cells that need to be fed and need to function properly," Dr. Atala said.
Gomez saw a miniature lab-grown liver, which was not yet ready for humans. The larger organs are built layer by layer with a modified ink jet printer that sprays different cell types onto the organ scaffold.
Believe it or not, Luke got his bladder 10 years ago. He went on to become the captain of his high school wrestling team and is a junior at UConn, all thanks to Dr. Atala's pioneering work.
"I would have been a lot more sick and I probably would have had to live on dialysis," Luke said.
Another advantage of growing body parts from a patient's own stem cells is that they won't be rejected, so patients won't need toxic anti-rejection drugs.
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