Regenerative medicine is a new way of treating injuries and diseases, using specially-grown tissues and cells, along with artificial organs. The goal is helping the body to regenerate itself.
It’s an emerging field with great potential, according to the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
“These approaches can amplify our natural healing process in the places it's needed most, or take over the function of a permanently damaged organ,” according to the Institute’s web site.
Alan Russell is the founder of the McGowan Institute, and a leader in regenerative medicine.
He will speak in Omaha at 7:30 p.m. on April 11 as part of the free Holland Lecture Series at the Holland Center.
Research is also being done locally in regenerative medicine, including work at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University.
Russell’s biography calls him a medical futurist and a pioneer in regenerative medicine. Crossing the fields of chemistry, biology, and materials science, Russell’s research lab studies how to help damaged tissues and organs to rebuild themselves.
For example, he is currently developing an artificial ovary so that women with cancer may undergo radiation treatment and still be able to have children.
Russell has also attracted attention beyond the scientific community. Rolling Stone magazine named him one of the “100 People Who are Changing America,” and he spoke at the TED Conference in 2006 on regenerating our bodies.
In that TED talk, Russell said, “Regenerative medicine is an extraordinarily simple concept. It’s simply accelerating the pace at which the body heals itself in a clinically-relevant time scale.”
This work makes Russell a logical choice as speaker for the Holland Lecture Series, according to Steve Hutchinson, chairperson of the Holland Lecture Committee.
“Part of what we want to accomplish is to inform people about where the science is going, and to raise questions about the implications of that science,” he said. “We think he’ll be interesting, and it will increasingly impact people’s lives. It’s time to start getting informed and think about the implications.”
The Holland Lecture Series is free to the public. It is sponsored by the First Unitarian Church of Omaha, and is funded by local philanthropist Dick Holland.
The series has its roots in the Frank R. Hoagland Lectures, which were held at the Unitarian Church between 1954 and 1964.
“When Dick Holland was a young guy, he attended the Hoagland Lectures. They were trying to bring provocative ideas into the community, and he wants to bring that back,” Hutchinson said. “That’s why he decided to sponsor this series.”
The Holland Lecture Series began in 2005, and has since brought to Omaha two well-known speakers annually. According to Hutchinson, these lectures provide open discussion of provocative ideas that are not usually heard in Nebraska.
Tickets are free, but must be reserved through the Holland Center box office. Reservations will become available on March 26. You may reserve up to six tickets, and can make reservations by calling (402)345-0606 or online at omahaperformingarts.org/tickets.
Hutchinson believes the combination of scientific, economic, and ethical issues presented by regenerative medicine make it worthy of public discussion.
“We had someone speak on stem cells in 2005, but we wanted to go back and touch upon that, because a great deal has happened,” Hutchinson said. “Regenerative medicine does include stem cells, but is much broader than that. The whole field has really come into existence over the last couple of years.”
The McGowan Institute divides regenerative medicine into three areas: medical devices and artificial organs, tissue engineering, and cellular therapies.
Stem cells are the best known aspect of regenerative medicine. According to the National Institutes of Health, stem cells are unspecialized cells capable of developing into many different cell types in the body, such as muscle, red blood, or brain cells.
“In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive,” according to the NIH’s stem cell information web site.
The use of stem cells in research has attracted controversy in the past, because some are taken from human embryos. Other stem cells are taken from adults.
In 2006, researchers identified a way to genetically reprogram some cells to assume a stem cell-like state. These new types are called pluripotent stem cells, and may be used in future research.
University of Nebraska Medical Center
The phrase “wouldn’t it be great if…” comes up frequently in conversation with David Crouse.
Crouse is a professor of genetics, cell biology and anatomy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC).
“Many health problems are related to the loss of function of tissues and organs. These problems persist because something is wrong or missing,” Crouse said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could solve these problems by replacing those tissues or repairing them?”
About 20 researchers at UNMC dedicate at least part of their work to regenerative medicine, particularly to stem cells.
This work is interdisciplinary. In addition to medicine, researchers come from backgrounds including biomaterials, engineering, and cellular biology.
“This is a regenerative medicine initiative, not a program,” said Crouse. “There are quite a few graduate students working on these projects, including PhD students and postdoctorates.”
Related research has been conducted for years at UNMC, but its formal initiative began in 2008 when Nora Sarvetnick was hired to lead its efforts.
“She has a group of researchers with one floor in Durham Research Tower II,” Crouse said. “Even though they are in different academic departments, they are located together. This kind of science is more driven by concepts than departments.”
The basic ideas of regenerative medicine go back decades. One of its first common applications was the repair of severe burns. Crouse said physicians originally took unburned skin from a healthy part of the body to replace burned skin.
Over time, organ transplantation developed from this basic idea of trading good tissue for bad tissue.
UNMC is now a major force in organ transplantation, but Crouse and his colleagues focus on newer and less developed aspects of RM research.
For example, Crouse said that cell transplantation may one day replace organ transplantation.
“We can transplant livers. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could transplant just liver cells?” Crouse said. “You could just inject them into the blood and they would find their way to the liver and fix the problem. It’s been done in animals, but not yet in humans.”
The liver is a large organ, and obtaining enough liver cells would be a challenge, but Crouse believes the benefits of avoiding surgical trauma will eventually make cell transplantation therapy successful.
In the same way, cells from other major organs and tissues could be transplanted and allowed to heal the unhealthy part of the body.
One group at UNMC is currently researching the regeneration of retina tissue related to sight damage, and another is studying the possibilities of using cells on Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.
The U.S. military is now funding RM research, and UNMC is in early stages of getting involved.
“There is horrible damage caused in military actions,” Crouse said. “The military can now get people to survive this damage, but they have missing or nonfunctional limbs or organs. The military is investing money and effort into recruiting scientists who can find solutions to these kinds of problems.”
The hope is that regenerative medicine might be able to help those suffering from crushing or other trauma, including military actions, auto accidents, and sports injuries.
“Wouldn't it be great to treat that? We are just beginning in this area,” Crouse said.
A number of researchers at Creighton University are also studying regenerative medicine, across several departments.
One of these is researchers is David He, a professor of biomedical science, who is studying the possibilities of regenerating hearing.
According to the National Institutes of Health, our ability to hear depends on bundles of hair cells in the inner ear. These hair bundles convert sound vibrations into electrical signals, which travel to the brain by way of the auditory nerve. When hair cells are damaged by disease or injury, people experience hearing loss.
Although fish and birds are able to grow new hair cells, mammals typically cannot.
“Our hair cells are vulnerable to noise. Teenagers use iPods. Military people are exposed to noise. Chemotherapy kills these cells,” He said. “Before this happens, we can prevent the cells from becoming damaged.”
He’s work focuses on regenerating hair cells, helping the body to repair them and possibly restore hearing loss.
While stem cells are instrumental in many types of RM research, He does not believe they are the best choice for the auditory system.
“The inner ear is a unique structure. Stem cells are unable to regenerate themselves. You have to introduce new cells,” He said. “I am focusing on repairing your existing cells through gene therapy.”
Damaged auditory cells will eventually lose their function and die, but it might be possible to spur a regenerative process and reverse the damage. He said that cells need a genetic signal to regenerate themselves, and his goal is to introduce that signal where needed.
“We can put the gene into a virus,” He said. “When the virus is introduced into living tissue, it will integrate its genetic materials with host genetic materials. These code genes will eventually trigger cell repair or stabilize cells when they are injured. You are putting a new gene into tissue, and those new genes help the injured cells.”
One obvious side effect of this method is that it requires the use of a virus. People normally think of a virus in negative terms, because of the direct and indirect effects it introduces into the body.
“A virus is scary,” He said. “We would have to modify the virus to reduce any toxic effect. The major problem is that the virus will continue to reproduce itself, and that would cause damage. If you can prevent that problem, this can work. We still have to modify the virus to make it safe.”
It might eventually be possible to use nanotechnology devices to carry the genetic signal into the damaged cells, without using a virus.
This kind of RM research on auditory cells has been done in animals, but not yet in humans.
When the auditory cells of guinea pigs were damaged, they lost their hearing, according to He. When gene therapy was introduced, partial hearing was regained by most of the guinea pigs within about one month.
“Maybe in five years this can be used in humans,” He said.
A Hot Topic
David Crouse at UNMC calls regenerative medicine a hot topic in health care. New journals and books are being published regularly, and new research departments are starting up nationwide because of available funding.
“If you do a web search with the words ‘regenerative medicine,’ you will get a lot of hits,” Crouse said. “People are living longer and therefore having more degenerative issues consistent with older age. People are getting into accidents more than in the past.
“As long as you have young people doing things that hurt them and old people aging, regenerative medicine will be needed.”