When the term ‘Regeneration’ is first heard, one thinks of science fiction movies in which a person grows his lost arm or leg magically as a lizard does with its tail. Although medicine has still a long way to go before a patient can actually grow his lost limb back, the advancements in the regeneration medicine field has already started to provide patients with cutting-edge surgical and medical treatments that would sound utopic only 20 years ago.
Dunnill and Mason came up with a simple definition for this new and exciting branch of medicine: ‘Regenerative medicine replaces or regenerates human cells, tissue or organs, to restore or establish normal function.’ The idea of regrowing or regenerating organs and tissues dates back to ancient Greece but scientific progress in this field had started at the end of the 20th century. Although there have been important studies conducted before, the field was popularized and became known to the public by the work of Dr. Anthony Atala, who is known as the father of Regenerative Medicine. Taken during a study that is conducted in the laboratory of Dr. Atala, the photo of a human ear growing on the back of a mouse had a lot of public attention.
The human body already possesses incredible regenerative properties. Regenerative Medicine applications ‘boosts’ these capabilities by inducing the body’s own cells to differentiate into diverse tissues. The human body houses special cells called stem cells that could produce other cells of the body given the appropriate stimuli. Scientists collect these cells, grow them in the laboratories to produce all kind of tissues and organs such as muscle, skin and liver to count a few. Because these cells are body’s own cells, the patient’s immune system does not attack these constructs as it attacks a transplanted organ from a deceased donor.
The most exciting news is that this is not just a scientific curiosity – medicine has already started to use this technology to treat patients! A bladder that was artificially produced the using patient’s own cells was successfully transplanted in 2006. Since then, different types of tissues and organs were surgically implanted in patients helping thousands to regain lost body parts. Having said that, it should be remembered that this is a new technology and scientists are still waiting to see long term results before these types of treatments become mainstream.
Regenerative medicine is expected to affect every branch of medicine from surgery to internal medicine. In the foreseeable future urologists might use this technology to produce kidneys, plastic surgeons to replace lost limbs and burnt skin, vascular surgeons to build new blood vessels and otolaryngologists to cure deafness. This field might also be the answer to one of humanity’s long scrutinized questions: ‘Is it possible to stop aging?’ Scientists are also working on developing methods to stop and reverse aging process using regenerative technologies.
The question is not if this will happen or not anymore but when.