Today, when someone needs a new heart, they have to wait until someone dies and can provide a heart for transplantation. But this can take years and years, and there is no guarantee that their body will accept the heart transplant. What if doctors could construct a new heart using a small number of cells from the body of the person with the defective heart?
This would not only substantially reduce the waiting time, but also eliminate any risk of organ rejection because the new heart would be made from the person’s own tissue. Is this just some futuristic dream? In fact, some researchers believe that such a procedure will be feasible in just 10 to 20 years thanks to tissue engineering. This new field combines life sciences and engineering, bringing together researchers in biomaterials, process engineering, biology and cellular engineering.
Applications of tissue engineering
This technology is currently being used to treat severely burned patients. A small sample of the patient’s healthy skin is harvested, then grown and transplanted to the burned areas. But while burn patients have been benefiting from this type of treatment for many years, improvements are still needed to make the transplanted skin identical to the original skin. Besides skin regeneration, researchers have been working on a variety of other applications for tissue engineering :
Orthopedic: Replacing/repairing cartilage, bone tissue and ligaments
Vascular: Constructing the three different layers of the blood vessel wall
Respiratory: Constructing bronchial structures
Ophthalmologic: Reconstructing the cornea
Constructing new organs, including the heart, liver and bladder
While the aim of tissue engineering is generally clinical, it also has great experimental potential, being of particular interest to researchers in physiology, pathology and pharmacology. The organs created using this technology are very similar to the original tissues and so can be used to test drugs and other treatments without any risk to human health.
Issues related to tissue engineering
What do you think? If we could regenerate organs like the heart or liver, should we systematically replace a person’s defective organ as soon as it shows signs of failing? Should tissue engineering be available to everyone or only to those who can afford the treatment? What should be the criteria for determining access to this technology?
Author : Pauline Boinot, M.Sc.
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Baquey C. (2005), L’Ingénierie Tissulaire : un nouvel espace d’expression scientifique et de développement technologie au service de la santé, Pathologie Biologie, 53 (10) : 569-570