"The option you have is either we shorten the finger, or we put you through two procedures or more, and I can't guarantee you will have full function, full sensation," said Dr. Francisco Schwartz-Fernandes, Altier's hand surgeon.
Either way, Altier faced at least five months of healing. That's when his wife asked about something new: a wound healing powder nicknamed "pixie dust."
A couple of days later, right in Dr. Schwartz-Fernandes' office, Altier's wound was coated with a white powder that's actually called Matri-Stem. Think of it as the general contractor at a construction site. It calls in specialized crews—or in this case cells—to rebuild Altier's fingertip, including nerves, nail and fingerprint. But instead of taking five months, using Matri-stem, it took only five weeks.
ore than 600 miles away, there's a different solution in the works. Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina gave us a first-hand look at how it works.
Using the dome-shaped mold, scientists are constructing a bladder. "We have a major shortage of organs, mainly because we're living longer," said Dr. Anthony Atala. Organ shortages are the driving force for Dr. Atala. He is a pioneer in the field of regenerative medicine. His dream is to grow organs we can't reject using cells from our own bodies. "We take a very small piece of tissue from the patient about half the size of a postage stamp," Atala said.
It takes a month for those cells to multiply.
"The cells are placed on the biomaterial, and it's like a sandwich. You have muscle cells on the outside; you have lining cells on the inside." That bio-material is like the steel beams of a building, shaping the organ. It eventually disintegrates, leaving only the cells behind. Making organs by hand takes time. But Dr. Atala is now automating the process using printers. This high-tech printer processes images from MRIs and creates a 3-D blue print for an ear, a finger bone, even a kidney.
"We've already made miniature kidneys that we've been able to implant experimentally and image urine, so we know that the technology is feasible. The challenge for us is, how do we take that miniature kidney and make it a larger structure—and that's where the printer is helping us," he said.
In the labs, bio-reactors keep the fabricated creations alive. Dr. Atala shows a heart-valve structure that is pumping away. The heart valve came from a pig, and all the cells were removed and replaced with human ones.
These units train regenerated parts to function as they would in our bodies. They are structures that could someday save lives. Dr. Atala hopes the lab-grown arteries will help people with peripheral artery diseases and other blood vessel diseases.
Altier says he was both surprised and happy with his results. Dr. Schwartz-Fernandes was especially impressed that the feeling returned to Altier's finger. "Every cell in your body has all the information necessary to create a whole new you," Dr. Atala said. He hopes that someday, organ regeneration will take place inside the body, but says that may be decades away.
For more information:
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Dr. Anthony Atala