Thriller Science: Custom-made replacement body parts

Today the New York Times featured some hard-to-believe-it’s-not-fiction science on the front page.  The headline: “A First: Tailor-Made With Body’s Own Cells.” At the Karolinska Institue in Sweden (and elsewhere), scientists are using stem cells taken from adult patients who need a new body part, say, a trachea (windpipe) as in the featured case. The patient’s stem cells are loaded onto either a porous plastic substrate of the proper shape, or even more dramatically, onto an actual organ matrix that’s been denuded of all cells (leaving only the protein scaffolding behind). The organ is nursed in a nutrient bath for about a day to allow the cells to take hold (think Luke Skywalker on Hoth), then implanted in the patient.

This approach solves the fundamental problem of organ transplantation, which is rejection. The immune system recognizes tissues that are not “self” and tries to kill them. Hence organ transplants must be “matched” as closely as possible, and it’s still necessary for the recipient to take drugs which suppress his immune system.

In these experimental procedures, the organ or body part put into the patient carries the patient’s own cells. No rejection, no anti-rejection drugs.

Dual personalities Dr. Amy Rogers and science thriller author Amy Rogers are both tantalized by the potential of this research in reality and for fiction. That’s why custom-made replacement body parts is the Thriller Science topic for today!

New career choice to suggest to your kid: Tissue Engineer

P.S. This was the first of a series of three articles. Here are links to part 2 and part 3.

P.P.S. Note that this type of stem cell research is totally uncontroversial, unlike stem cell work involving embryonic stem cells, because the cells are taken from the adult patient. I think the era of great debates over stem cells is largely over because scientists are finding that A) stem cells exist in adults; and B) they can do many things with them that previously people thought required stem cells of embryonic origin.

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