Next frontier for N.C. manufacturing: human organs

jmurawski@newsobserver.comFebruary 11, 2013 

— Advances in manufacturing are expected to lead to standardized production of human skin, blood vessels and other organs, potentially establishing North Carolina as a national hub for automated generation of human organs.

Medical researchers here have already custom-built bladders and urethras for their patients, and windpipes and other body parts are in the works, a pair of scientists from N.C. State and Wake Forest University said on Monday at the 28th annual Emerging Issues Forum in downtown Raleigh.

Wake Forest researchers are developing a 3D printer that can create living organs by oozing lab-grown cell cultures onto a petri dish. Though still in very early stages, manufacturing technology is expected to spawn a market for organs on demand.

“It will always be more expensive, which is one of the challenges of regenerative medicine,” Jorge Piedrahita, genomics professor at N.C. State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said after the conference. “So how do you make it cheaper? By making it as automated as possible.”

The symposium, which this year is focusing on the state of manufacturing in North Carolina, drew an audience of more than 1,000 officials from business, politics, government and academia at the Raleigh Convention Center. The two-day forum ends Tuesday.

Manufacturing in this state has shifted from furniture and textiles to advanced production of vaccines, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and other products, including clothing, food and tools.

Custom-built organs have been designed for patients as part of clinical trials, including the replacement of 80 percent of a bladder 11 years ago for a patient who remains in good health today.

But using standardized manufacturing techniques for organ production requires federal regulatory approval. The Wake Forest and N.C. State researchers described some of the advanced techniques as cell printing, cell spraying and tissue fabrication over synthetic scaffolding that disintegrates inside the body.

Only two cell treatment applications are currently approved for commercial use – human cells as wound dressings for burns, and cartilage cells for knee repair. That could change soon as several dozen clinical trials here and elsewhere are likely to result in the approval of multiple procedures, said Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and urology department chair at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Cell treatments generally work by injecting live cells to help the body heal itself, by growing cell tissue to reconstruct a portion of a damaged organ, or by sprouting an entirely new organ. The tissue is cultivated in incubators at body temperature, 98.6 degrees, over a month or two.

Scientists have had success with organs that are flat, tubular and hollow (like a bladder), but the creation of complex, solid organs like hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys is still beyond the reach of modern medicine.

Organ generation uses a patient’s cell culture or tissue for the donor’s own benefit. It differs from the mass-production of vaccines and drugs for potentially millions of users. For that reason it will always remain customized and costly.

The science of growing organs for animals is a more recent development, only about three years old, said Piedrahita. N.C. State and Wake Forest are about to begin a 2-year project to treat urinary incontinence in dogs.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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