Five boys from Mexico became the first people whose cells were used to grow a new urethra.
The boys, ages 10 to 14, had damaged their urinary tracts in “straddle” accidents. Three of the boys had pelvic trauma and the other two previous urethra work that was unsuccessful.
In a major medical breakthrough announced this week, the kids received the first tissue-engineered urethra – a thin tube carrying urine out of the body from the bladder.
To make the artificial urethra, doctors removed a small chunk of their bladder, whose cells are similar to the urethra, and scientists put the cells into a special mixture in a laboratory to speed their growth. After that, the scientists alternately coated the tube with muscle cells on the outside and lining cells on the inside.
"It's not so much science fiction anymore to think we can grow replacement organs," said Patrick Warnke, a tissue engineering expert at Bond University in Australia.
Without the revolutionary treatment, the boys would have had to get an artificial graft that only has a 50 percent success rate. Had it failed, the young boys would have lived with incontinence and repeat urinary infections their whole life.
Dr. Anthony Atala, a professor of surgical sciences at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, described the process as "very much like baking a layer cake."
He said the new structure is put into an incubator for several weeks before being implanted into the patient, in the knowledge that the scaffold will eventually disintegrate, leaving the boys' own cells as a new urethra.
Atala told National Public Radio that before the procedure, the boys were in bad shape.
"When they first came in, they had a leg bag that drains urine, and they have to carry this bag everywhere they go," he said. "It's uncomfortable and painful. So these children were mostly sitting or bed-bound."
Up to six years after having their new urethras implanted, Atala said the boys' organs are fully functional and no major side effects were reported.
“"These children are now totally normal," Atala told NPR. "They're running around and doing the things they usually do."
He said the techniques used might be applied to create more complicated tubular structures in the body, like blood vessels. Atala and his colleagues have previously made bladders using patients' own cells.
Some experts said using science to reconstruct body parts was the ultimate medicine.
"When an organ or tissue is irreparably damaged or traumatically destroyed, no amount of drugs or mechanical devices will restore the patient back to normal," said Chris Mason, chair of regenerative medicine bioprocessing at University College London, in a statement.
"If the goal is cure, then cell-based therapies are the answer."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.