What Is Regenerative Medicine?
Our bodies have innate healing processes. When we get a cut or a scrape, our body repairs itself on its own. When we get hit with a cold, our bodies respond and get us back to good health again.
Regenerative medicine is a discipline of medicine focused on utilizing and optimizing these natural self-healing processes to improve our health. It includes things like organ transplants (both real and artificial), tissue engineering, cellular therapies, and more.
While regenerative medicine might sound like a new concept, we’ve actually been using forms of it for years. The first skin graft occurred in 1854; the first successful kidney transplant was in 1950. Things like autografts and organ transplants are considered regenerative medicine because they seek to replace, rejuvenate, and regenerate the body.
Let’s take a closer look at the three main focuses of regenerative medicine:
Organ Transplants and Medical Devices
When a person has a failing or damaged organ, he or she is typically added to the national transplant list in the hopes of receiving a donated organ. The problem is, there currently aren’t enough available organs for all the people who need them. Today, over 119,000 people are on the U.S. transplant list. And 22 people die each day waiting for a transplant. Adding to the complications, even if a patient does get an organ in time, sometimes his or her body fights against the transplant, requiring immunosuppression drugs that can have a variety of adverse side effects.
Today, researchers and scientists are actively working to solve the organ shortage by developing artificial devices that can replicate the function of organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys — without being rejected. Medical devices are also being developed to support damaged organs, helping patients hold on while they wait for a donor.
Tissue engineering is a form of regenerative medicine that uses scaffolds — structures made from artificial or natural materials — to support cells as they work to repair and maintain organs and tissues. Using biologically active molecules, cells grow on the scaffolds to form healthy, functional tissue. Tissue engineering includes things like artificial skin, cartilage, and lab-grown bone.
Cellular therapies are centered around the use of stem cells to help regrow and repair tissue. Stem cells have the unique ability to transform into different types of cells — blood cells, skin cells, brain cells, and more. Every organ and tissue in your body started as a stem cell, and even now stem cells are used throughout our bodies to help heal us when we’re sick or injured. Scientists are now working to harness these unique properties of stem cells to help regrow, repair, and heal organs and tissue.
Stems Cells: At the Heart of Regenerative Medicine
Stem cell research is particularly promising for scientists studying regenerative medicine. If these cells are inserted into damaged or diseased tissue under the right conditions, studies have shown that the tissue or organ can regrow and heal. There’s still a lot of research to be done, but with the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), scientists around the world are optimistic that stem cells could be used to help heal nearly any type of tissue in the body. Plus, iPS cells can actually be derived from blood and skin cells, bypassing the ethical concerns that can come with stem cells from embryos.
Cellular therapies could completely change how we treat illness and disease. Currently, most clinical treatments focus on alleviating symptoms. But cellular therapies are designed to cure illness at its roots. For example, stem cells transformed into liver cells could potentially be placed in the body of someone with a damaged liver. These healthy cells could then restore the liver’s health using the body’s own natural healing process — the “good” cells replacing the “bad” ones or teaching them to become healthy once again. This in turn would drastically reduce our reliance on organ transplants – and because the treatment cells were derived from the person’s own stem cells, there wouldn’t be any concerns about his or her body rejecting them.