Researchers are working to engineer more than 30 different replacement tissues and organs to help develop cell therapies with the goal of curing a variety of diseases.
Inside the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, science fiction became reality when the world's first engineered urethra was created.
To do it, first, researchers take a very small piece of tissue from a patient's bladder. Then, they grow the cells outside the body and put the tailor-made urethra right back in the patient.
"Very much like baking a layer cake if you will, we do this one layer at a time," said Anthony Atala, MD, Director of the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Doctors were able to give five boys in Mexico who suffered pelvic injuries new urethras.
Researchers also are using printers to create lab-grown ears. So, far it has worked in animals.
"We can make it match very closely to a native ear," said John Jackson, PhD, associate professor at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
A CT scan of the existing ear generates a pattern that scientists replicate. A 3D image is made, then layer by layer, the machine prints the ear.
In another project, researchers are engineering muscle. First, they take muscle biopsies and isolate cells that have the potential to multiply. They then seed them onto a scaffold, teaching the cells to become muscle.
""Think of as exercise, as if you were exercising at a gym or something like that," said George Christ, PhD, professor of regenerative medicine at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The next step is to implant the muscle in the body, where it will regenerate and repair an injury. The new muscle could help many ailments including neuropathy, cleft palate, and facial paralysis.
"It's life-changing even in the simplest cases," said Dr. Christ.
While the urethras have already been used in human patients and are currently in clinical trials, the engineered muscle and bio-printed ears have not. Scientists hope to be using them in humans in the next two years or so. Hoping their work could one day help injured soldiers, researchers at Wake Forest have also teamed up with the military on a few projects.