By: Madeline Butler ’24
The breakthroughs offered by regenerative medicine ranging from tissue repair to potentially lab grown organs mean that soon, damage once thought to be irreversible could be repaired by our own bodies.
Its goal is to replace or reboot tissues or organs damaged by disease, injury or age instead of treatment with medication or procedures. This can happen at the molecular, cellular or tissue level.
The field of regenerative medicine first gained popularity in the 1990s when tissue engineering became popular for stem cell research and procedures like skin grafting.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “The return on investment for this area of research is expected to be dramatic: better understanding of how diseases develop and spread, accurate screens for testing new drugs and cell-based therapies for diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and many other conditions that affect millions of Americans.”
All living organisms regenerate as part of natural processes to repair and maintain tissues and organs, but some animals can do this to a much larger extent. For example, Hydra, a tiny freshwater animal, can form two whole bodies after being cut in half and the axolotl can regenerate the form and function of almost any limb or organ.
Mammals, such as humans, have more limited regenerative capabilities. Regeneration in humans includes forming thick scars in tissues and skin to promote the healing of injured body parts, regrowing hair or skin and repairing fractured bones.
“In humans, organs such as the liver undergo what is called compensatory hypertrophy. When part of the liver is removed or destroyed, the remaining portion grows to the original size and allows the liver to function as it did before,” according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).
Stem cells are one form of regenerative medicine that has received intensive study. This is because stem cells can renew themselves millions of times while other cells in the body, like nerve cells, cannot. Their primary roles are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.
The two most basic types of stem cells are adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. The two main differences between these two types are that adult stem cells can only preform the functions of the type of cell they are, and they are primarily taken directly from the body while embryonic stem cells can make any type of cell in the body and are only taken from laboratory cultures.
Typically, adult stem cells are used for stem cell therapy because studies have shown that they have immune-modulatory effect invoking a positive immune response. This is very important because if the body rejects the cells, the immune system will start attacking them.
Another type of regenerative medicine is creating artificial organs. These organs could have the potential to replace organs that are too damaged to repair by other means.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “NIH researchers have already created miniature ‘hearts’ that beat rhythmically in a culture dish and contain all the different cell types that make up a human heart. Scientists have also developed a lung-on-a-chip. When intermittent suction is applied, the cells in this thumb-sized device flex and stretch rhythmically just as they do in our lungs when we breathe.”
While all of these different forms of regenerative medicine still have a lot of research to go before their results can be used in everyday procedures, this field of study promises a future where we can one day repair our own bodies.