Thursday, March 10, 2011

Scientists grow human urethra in the laboratory

by Alice Park

Watching human organs take shape in a lab dish is no longer the realm of science fiction: as scientists get better at applying engineering techniques to living cells and tissues, lab-grown organs are increasingly becoming a reality. And this week, researchers at Wake Forest University report that they have for the first time successfully created a urethra that worked in human patients.

The research team, led by Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, began with a biodegradable scaffolding molded roughly into the shape of a thin tube to resemble a human urethra. The urethra is responsible for transporting urine waste outside of the body, and in men, can be narrowed by disease or damaged by trauma. Atala's group then seeded the scaffold with bladder cells from the patients who would be using the tubes. This way, the tissue was the patients' own.

Once transplanted, the urethras acclimated to their new environment and completed their development, until eventually, they started to function just as healthy urethras. Over time, the scaffolding eventually dissolves, much like biodegradable surgical sutures do, as new cells take over and maintain the integrity of the tissue. In a trial involving five boys with damaged tissues, Atala reports in the journal Lancet that all five of the transplanted urethras worked well in removing urine for up to six years.

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