Regenerative Medicine

A couple of weeks ago Wake Forest University physicians described the first human recipients of a laboratory-grown organ. In the prestigious medical journal "The Lancet," Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, detailed a series of patients (children and teenagers) who received urinary bladders grown from their own cells. WHAAAAT? Did somebody say "laboratory organs?!"

Yes. Perhaps like you, the first reaction of some who heard the news was, “why would anyone need a new bladder?” Well, many infants are born with congenital birth defects a very serous one is spina bifida (incomplete closure of the spine). One of the effects of this condition is the inability to urinate at will, or even to regulate the build up of urine, which could then back up into the kidneys, creating even more damage. This condition puts a tremendous burden on the patients. Some have urinary leakage and some must manually empty the bladder. Some of these patients have surgical procedures to build their non-functional bladders using intestinal tissues. The problem with this old procedure is that patients experience side effects like loss of bone density, increased risk of bladder cancer and kidney stones.

This is where the new, exciting field of "regenerative medicine" comes in. What it really means is "to regenerate," to build something from a source. To oversimplify it a bit, it's like making new body parts with the help of your own body. These scientists took the patients’ own cells and, in a laboratory, grew a new organ in this case, a bladder, which they then surgically put in to the same patients, thus giving them a new functioning organ.

The importance of this new report is tremendous. First, we eliminate the concept of tissue rejection. Many times, tissues from another person are not compatible and require the recipient to take multiple medications, which have significant side effects. Second, there is tremendous shortage of donor organs for transplantation and many patients do not have time to wait. So this new field puts into perspective two fundamental needs: improving and saving lives. Now, this is our first real glimpse into this new, powerful technology, and YES, it will have its ups and downs, but this is how great medicine is built. It's important to say that it is still too early to call any such procedures routine, quick, or a magic bullet. However, they certainly hold a lot of promise down the line.

After this story came out, I kept getting the same interesting question: What does this have to do with the trend of new mothers storing and/or donating their infant's umbilical cord blood upon delivery?

First, a quick explanation of umbilical cord blood collection: when a baby is born, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut to separate the infant from the mother. The portion of the cord that is attached to the placenta is removed from the mother's body and is usually discarded. Inside the cord are blood vessels that contain a good half-cup of blood that belongs to the baby. That blood contains many stem cells. Our body uses stem cells as one way of repairing itself. Many parents choose to collect and store that umbilical cord blood in case those cells are needed for their child somewhere down the line. Its like backing up files on your computer in case your hard drive crashes.

But, how can a human "hard drive" crash? Let's take a look at childhood leukemia (cancer of the blood system). Many children who develop leukemia get effective treatments, but in doing so, not only are the cancer cells eliminated, but also so are some healthy ones. The hard drive gets erased. Typically, many patients need to replenish their system with new cells — usually from another source, like bone marrow from a compatible donor. None of it is an easy task. However, more and more cancer centers are relying on umbilical cord blood for several reasons: better grafting, compatibility and reliable source. Almost all cancer specialists prefer a perfect match. So, imagine if you had your own cells to regenerate your system back to normal. This is one of the concepts behind storing a child's umbilical cord blood.

So, cord blood storage is related to the story laboratory-grown organs, but only in the sense that both treatments would come from you and go to you. But unlike the stem cells, the concept of making organs from frozen cells is years away — at least in the practical sense. However, someday in the future we could use one of those stored umbilical cord blood cells from a child with diabetes and create a new pancreas, thus changing a child's life forever

In the meantime, let’s give a standing ovation to the team from Wake Forest College of Medicine. They may have just paved the way into the future.

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Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit