Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Driven by a shortage of organs for transplant, tissue engineering has started to come into its own in the past few years, Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, told a group of nearly 100 gathered at the Museum of Science recently.
Although engineered organs remain a long way off, tissue engineering has already made it possible for doctors to use a patient's own cells to repair damaged cartilage, a feat long considered impossible, according to Vunjak-Novakovic, whose talk was part of the Frontiers in Health Science lecture series held every Friday night in the museum's Skyline Room. The March 18 lecture, "Tissue Engineering: The Challenges of Imitating Nature," featured Vunjak-Novakovic and her entire research team and was followed by a question and answer period.
Vunjak-Novakovic began the talk by pointing to the vast need for research. There are currently close to 90,000 people waiting for organ transplants in this country and not nearly enough organs to go around, she said.
The idea behind tissue regeneration and transplantation is not a new one, said Vunjak-Novakovic, who gave a brief history lesson during her 45-minute lecture. The chimera and sphinx of ancient times were mythical beasts composed of the parts of different animals. Even the science itself is not brand new. "Tissue culture and cell culture are about 100 years old," she said.
But the field continues to grow and expand, offering new technology where once there was no hope of recovery. In addition to the work on cartilage repair, an FDA-approved method known as Carticel, Vunjak-Novakovic said that researchers experimenting on a rabbit have been able to grow new tissue in a laboratory to fix a deficient knee joint. "If it worked really nicely in a rabbit, would it work in humans?" she asked.
Vunjak-Novakovic and her team have been focused on engineering a contractile patch to rebuild hearts. It is a complicated process, said Vunjak-Novakovic, one that is only beginning to be understood. "There is big, huge potential," she said. "But we still have a long way to go before this is a clinical reality."
For the tissue engineer, learning from nature is key, said Vunjak-Novakovic. "Nothing is uniform in nature," she said. "There is huge complexity." From watching nature, one tries to translate the process into technology. "The cell is the actual tissue engineer," she said.