- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

BOSTON (AP) — For the first time, scientists have rebuilt a complex human organ, the bladder, in seven young patients using live tissue grown in the lab.

“This suggests that tissue engineering may one day be a solution to the shortage of donor organs in this country for those needing transplants,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, the lead researcher.

He said he thinks the work provides a model for growing other tissues and organs.

Only simpler tissues — skin, bone and cartilage — have been grown in the lab in the past. This is the first time that a more intricate organ has been mostly replaced with tissue grown from the patient’s cells.

The bladder transplants, performed on seven patients ages 4 to 19, were being reported online today in the Lancet medical journal. The research team at Children’s Hospital in Boston did the first procedure in 1999 but wanted to ensure it would work on others.

The results weren’t announced while the doctors did the other surgeries and followed the progress of the last patient for almost two years.

“It gives everyone in the field … the evidence and encouragement they’ve needed to say this can be done,” said Dr. Stephen Badylak, a University of Pittsburgh specialist in tissue engineering.

Growing other organs likely will hold unforeseen challenges, however, because organs are so specialized in their functions, scientists stress.

Even for people with bladder disease — and there are an estimated 35 million of them in the United States — Dr. Atala’s technique requires testing on more patients and for longer times, researchers say. Replacing an entire bladder would pose many more problems.

For the children and teenagers in the study, the transplants reduced leaking from their bladders — a potentially big gain in quality of life. For 16-year-old Kaitlyne McNamara, the transplant has meant a new social life.

At the time of her surgery five years ago, her kidneys were close to failing as a result of her weak bladder. Now, they are working again, and she no longer wears a diaper. Instead, she was waiting for alternations on a low-cut champagne-colored dress for her junior prom.

“Now that I’ve had the transplant, my body actually does what I want it to do,” she said last week near her home in Middletown, Conn. “Now I can go have fun and not worry about having an accident.”

Scientists, marveling at how animals such as salamanders regenerate lost limbs, have long toyed with the futuristic possibilities of regrowing worn-out or injured human parts. Recent discoveries have transformed those hopes into an emerging reality.

In the past decade, researchers began fashioning better scaffoldlike platforms that hold growing cells and dissolve inside the body. The study of stem cells, which can mature into all other tissues in the body, also has supercharged progress in regenerative medicine.

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