The Body Future
Research in regenerative medicine could someday make Steve Austin seem ordinary. Read on: You might not believe your eyes (and there’s new hope for those, too).
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On March 7, 1973, Americans got their first glimpse of Steve Austin, a man barely alive. But $6 million worth of cutting-edge science (and, of course, some TV special effects) helped rebuild him into the stronger, faster, better Bionic Man.
For the next half-decade, Austin’s zoom-lens left eye and bionic limbs held our attention on the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man,” letting us imagine that a person could actually be rebuilt with engineered parts. Each week, kids across the country were glued to their television sets, watching actor Lee Majors as covert agent Austin, who could catch any villain or foil any evil plot with the help of his remarkable, re-engineered body.
In 1982, just four years after the last episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” aired, it suddenly seemed that fantasy was becoming reality: The world watched in astonishment as an artificial heart, the Jarvik-7, was implanted into the chest of a dying man named Barney Clark.
Clark survived for 112 well-documented days. His death was mourned worldwide, but clearly science had not failed. We had entered a new era, moving toward a day when our hearts, lungs and livers could easily be replaced if trauma or disease damaged them.
At the cutting-edge McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a joint effort of the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC, that era continues to unfold. McGowan, ranked by independent evaluations, is one of the top three regenerative medicine institutes in the world.
Teams of McGowan-affiliated engineers and scientists are tackling medical challenges and designing replacement organs that sometimes seem straight out of a sci-fi novel.
In the pages that follow, you’ll learn about 10 cutting-edge projects, including progress in conquering trauma and disease in every part of the human body. And most mind-blowing of all: Researchers are getting closer to growing entire replacement organs. Even Steve Austin would be impressed.
Some of the earliest work on artificial hearts and lungs began in the ’70s and ’80s, and in 1992, the McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development was formally established and named after the late William G. McGowan, the CEO of MCI Communications who underwent a successful heart transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 1987. As work on artificial-organ devices progressed in the ’90s, research into cell therapy and tissue engineering also was growing.
The Body Future
10 Groundbreaking Research Projects in Regenerative Medicine
Battling Esophageal Cancer: Research led by Stephen Badylak, M.D., Ph.D., D.V.M.; Blair Jobe, M.D. Preclinical work is progressing for patients struggling with early esophageal cancer, known as Barrett’s esophagus. Dr. Blair Jobe has developed a technique to remove the cancerous esophageal lining and replace it with a layer of extracellular matrix (ECM) developed by Dr. Stephen Badylak. The matrix encourages stem cells to move to the site, and, over time, the lining heals into healthy tissue. With conventional surgery, the cancerous part of the esophagus is removed, and the remaining esophagus is hooked back to the stomach. A patient’s esophagus will often narrow, which makes swallowing difficult and painful. This new approach involves removing the cancerous esophagegal lining and creating a new one using ECM rather than removing the entire esophagus. The next step: clinical trials.
Conquering Type 1 Diabetes: Massimo Trucco, M.D. Dr. Massimo Trucco and his team are getting close to a cure for Type 1 diabetes, also called “juvenile diabetes.” Their research includes the isolation of a super-antigen believed to trigger juvenile diabetes in children. In their research with mice, microspheres formulated of antisense oligonucleotide (short DNA sequences) were injected under the skin near the pancreas. Nucleic-acid molecules from the microspheres were able to reprogram dendritic cells (a kind of white blood cell), which turned off the immune-system attack on insulin-producing beta cells. Just weeks later, diabetic mice began producing insulin. This unique formulation, essentially functioning as an anti-diabetes vaccine, succeeded in preventing Type 1 diabetes, and it also reversed new-onset disease. Safety testing of the vaccine in humans is underway.
Pediatric Liver Cell Therapy: Ira Fox, M.D. Dr. Ira Fox is the director of the Center for Innovative Pediatric Regenerative Therapies, a joint program of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, the McGowan Institute and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. His work focuses on finding innovative treatments for diseases resulting from liver-cell dysfunction. Other research efforts include developing alternative ways to regenerate damaged liver cells and overcoming barriers to the use of liver-cell transplantation in the treatment of hepatic diseases.
Growing “Ectopic” Organs: Eric Lagasse, Pharm.D., Ph.D. This is the final frontier: Discovering methods for growing new organs within a patient’s body to replace organs that are failing. Dr. Eric Lagasse has succeeded in getting mouse lymph nodes to grow liver cells, creating “little livers” that can then be transplanted to save an animal that would otherwise die from liver failure. The technology can potentially be applied to other organs of the human body as well.
Whole Organ Engineering: Alex Soto-Gutierrez, M.D., Ph.D. In another regenerative medicine approach to generating entire replacement organs, Dr. Alejandro Soto-Gutierrez and his team use the structural connective tissue of rat livers as a scaffold for growing new liver tissue that has been regenerated from liver cells introduced through a unique reseeding process. Building on work that Dr. Soto-Gutierrez did with researchers at Harvard University and in collaboration with Dr. Badylak, he has improved a method of flushing living cells out of the liver’s extracellular matrix, leaving behind the organ’s lobular structure, blood vessel network and growth factor proteins. Novel techniques are employed to introduce replacement liver cells through the blood vascular system back into the matrix. The experimental model suggests that an alternative strategy to organ replacement could be possible; a donor liver might be repopulated with recipient liver cells and transplanted, so rejection and the powerful drugs used to combat it would no longer be a concern.