Ear we go!

2012-06-30 15:39

In a lab of the future, new organs can be grown from a patient’s own cells

Despite what it looks like, the picture on your right is not of a psychotic killer.

It’s Professor Alexander Seifalian of University College London with an ear he has grown from a patient’s own cells.

Seifalian manages a revolutionary body parts factory where scientists use nanontechnology to produce organs for those who need transplants.

But the university’s department of nanotechnology and regenerative medicine looks more like a school science laboratory than Frankenstein’s lair.

“We are the first in the world working on this,” Seifalian told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper in an interview.

Showing off a nose swimming in red liquid, he said: “It’s a world first . . . Nobody has ever grown a nose before.”

Last year Seifalian and his team grew a windpipe, or trachea, for a cancer patient using his own cells, in what was the world’s first synthetic organ transplant.

The patient, a 36-year-old man from Eritrea, had a tumour in his throat that was rapidly growing towards his lungs.

To replace it they built a “scaffold” for the organ using a nanocomposite polymer material several hundred times thinner than a human hair.

This was placed over a glass mould and then “seeded” with the patient’s cells.

The polymers used are stronger, more elastic and more versatile than other materials, and they encourage cell growth.

University College London has already reportedly spent almost R1.3 million on patents for the nanomaterials the laboratory uses.

The use of the patient’s own cells reduces the risk of organ rejection and the need for further surgery.

Referring to the nose they were growing, Seifalian said the nanomaterial they used contained “thousands of small holes”.

“Tissue grows into these and becomes part of it. It becomes the same as a nose and will even feel like one,” he told the Daily Mail.

Before it is placed on the face, the nose will first be placed under the patient’s skin on their arm for about four weeks to allow skin to cover it and blood vessels to grow inside it.

Besides the windpipe, ear and nose they have already grown, Seifalian’s team is working on producing heart valves, which could revolutionise heart surgery as these valves may not require highly invasive open-heart surgery to be inserted.

One of Seifalian’s team members, Adelola Oseni, said the “idea of being able to grow tissues in a lab and to reconstruct the body is huge”.

“If we can grow a heart, a lung or a trachea in a lab, we don’t need to wait for donors,” Oseni said. “This work has massive implications for the way we function as clinicians and the way medicine is practised.”

» Meanwhile, News24 reported on Friday that a shortage of money was preventing medical researchers and doctors from performing skin cloning on South African burn victims.

Africa’s first skin graft involving cloned skin was performed last month at Johannesburg’s Garden City Hospital on little Pippie Kruger (3) who suffered

third-degree burns on 80% of her body after a firelighter gel exploded on her.

Her skin was cloned at Genzyme laboratory in Boston, in the United States, and flown back to South Africa for the transplant.

Her surgeon, Dr Ridwan Mia, said the cost of specialised equipment prevented the country from undertaking its own skin cloning projects.

University of Cape Town medical school biologist Dr Lester Davids, head of the Redox lab – the only lab in the country specialising in cloning of primary human skin cells – said the country had the expertise but not the funding.

“Genzyme has the capacity to employ 100 technicians, whereas I have only one,” he said.

“People with 80% third degree burns rarely survive, but adequate funding could make a difference in local fire disasters, like shack fires.” 

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