Donate organs? No, grow them from scratch

Columbia researcher Nina Tandon believes that the era of engineered tissues -- think ultimately of a replacement kidney grown in the lab -- is just beginning.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read
Nina Tandon, a senior fellow at Columbia University's Lab for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, speaking at TEDx Berlin.
Nina Tandon, a senior fellow at the Columbia University Lab for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, speaks at TEDx Berlin. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BERLIN -- Medical science, boosted by manufacturing and information technology, is on the cusp of being able to grow human tissue.

So believes Nina Tandon, a senior fellow at Columbia University's Lab for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, who for her Ph.D. thesis grew cardiac cells that beat like tiny hearts.

A third age of medicine is beginning, she said in a speech here at the TEDx Berlin conference held in conjunction with IFA consumer-electronics show. The first age, most of human history, had only a primitive understanding of the body. The second age ran from the first dialysis machines in 1924 to today's organ replacement procedures dependent on human donors and limited by the fact that many tissues are rejected by the body they're being transplanted into.

The third age builds replacement materials through tissue engineering.

"We've gone to growing pieces of the body that are living -- from scratch," Tandon said. Though she's careful to give credit where it's due: humans provide a framework and the correct environment, but "the real tissue engineers are the cells."

Her work so far has focused coaxing cells into activity with electrical impulses inside what she calls a bioreactor. Some of her work is shown in a video of a pulsating cube of lab-grown rat heart tissue. It's about 5mm on a side, a scale that makes her ambition -- growing a patch of heart tissue that could be applied after a heart attack -- seem more achievable.

"We have some tissue-engineered products on the market," she said, including a replacement bladder one patient has had for several years. The early products are relatively inactive tissues such as tracheas, she said, adding that "cartilage is probably next."

And she's got commercialization on her mind, too.

"We're in the beginning of a startup doing a bone implant," Tandon said. "Cardac is probably much further down the line. It's probably more like 15 to 20 years.".

Engineered tissues have less glamorous but equally useful applications, she said. For example, drug developers could use them to test new drugs on actual human tissue, not just that of other animals.

"We could shrink down the time it takes to discover new therapies," she said.

And medical researchers could study health problems in a new way, she said. "If we grow more diseased tissues in the lab, we can learn a lot more about disease mechanisms and disease cures."