The importance of regenerative medicine
The phrase 'regenerative medicine' first appeared in a 1992 paper by Leland Kaiser, outlining the technologies that could impact our society's future.
American scientist William Haseltine was the first to use the term as we understand it today. During a conference in 1999, Haseltine used 'regenerative medicine' to refer to an emerging field that combined tissue engineering, cell transplantation, stem cell biology, biomechanics, biochemistry, and even robotics!
Interestingly, the regeneration of body parts is quite a common phenomenon in nature. For example, a salamander can regenerate an amputated limb in just a few days. With the help of regenerative medicine, human beings may be able to do something similar in the not-too-distant future.
How can the human body regenerate?
To an extent, the human body can regenerate all on its own - this is how our bodies are able to heal after sustaining wounds, broken bones, etc.
Regeneration occurs at three different levels:
- Molecular regeneration - This includes the small molecules that make up the building blocks of the body, including DNA, fats, and carbohydrates.
- Cellular regeneration - This includes cell structures such as neurons and axons, which contribute to cell growth and reproduction.
- Tissue regeneration - This includes blood, skin, bone and muscle.
What methods are used in regenerative medicine?
1. Tissue Engineering
This is where biologic scaffold materials are implanted into the body where new tissue needs to be formed. These scaffolds are designed to have the same shape as the damaged tissue that needs to be regenerated, and it then attracts cells to form the new tissue in the desired shape.
Tissue engineering is used in skin reconstruction, and it can even be used for for bioengineering heart, liver, lung and kidney tissue.
The process has a lot of potential as it uses scaffolding from human tissue, combines it with the patient's own cells, and then creates customised organs that will not be rejected by their immune system.
2. Cellular and Gene Therapy
Cell and gene therapy or ATMPs (Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products) are at the forefront of biomedical research. This field includes stem cell therapy, cell therapy and gene therapy - all of which have a focus on regenerating human cells to establish normal function.
Gene therapies dig beneath the surface, and are used to target, modify and repair an individual's genes at the DNA/RNA level. This field holds incredibly promising results for a wide range of diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart disease, diabetes and AIDS.
3. Artificial Organs
Artificial organs are extremely complex medical devices that have active mechanical and biochemical functions. They can be used to replace the heart, lung, kidneys, liver, pancreas and neurosensory organs.
Artificial organs have the potential to be a real game-changer. Statista recently revealed that, as of 31 March 2022, there were 328 patients waiting for a heart transplant within the UK; wait times are generally between 18 and 24 months, but can be even longer. Artificial organs could greatly reduce our reliance on organ donors - instead of waiting for someone else's heart, patients could be fitted with an artificial heart that performs the same vital functions.