Watching history go by…

One of my educational ambitions is a degree in biophysics.  One reason for this is to participate in, and contribute to, some of the research going on out there in a number of areas.  Some areas that I find particularly fascinating are those dealing with the repair or replacement of organs and the inflammatory response of our bodies.  For instance, I truly believe that we will eventually find any number of degenerative diseases to have a common cause in our own body’s inflammatory response.  Two seemingly unrelated conditions like Alzheimer’s and glaucoma, among others, I believe will ultimately find effective treatments in understanding and dealing with modulating the inflammatory response of our body.  I believe that we will eventually find each condition to have a common cause, that our body is killing our own cells by way of an inflammatory response gone wrong.  When you think of this sort of thing, inflammation gone haywire, you might commonly think of things like arthritis.  I believe that many other conditions, like the ones I mentioned above, have a similar, as yet misunderstood mechanism.  I have no doubt that I will write more about this contention in the future.

In the meantime, I thought I would share some pretty compelling research in the area of organ repair and replacement.  As I said, this is another area I find particularly fascinating.  A story, posted today on, offered an overview of some research recently published, that used a combination of engineered materials and gene therapy as an alternate way to perform bone grafts.  As the article notes, bone grafts are second only to blood transfusions in terms of transplanted materials.  As with any transplant, inflammation and rejection are particular concerns, along with the normal risks associated with any invasive procedure.

Some of the common themes in current research in this area are the use of nano-engineered or natural materials to provide a scaffold, or framework, for organ repair, and using therapies to induce as natural a growth or healing response as possible.  I the case of this particular project, they used a nano-engineered material to replace bone as the material the new growth would take place on.  The engineering of materials at the microscopic scale had resulted in the ability to produce very specific results, like a material that is microscopically similar to bone and can provide an artificial framework, rather than using donated bone, regardless of source.  These are relatively recent advances that have opened up many new possibilities.  In this project, they then use gene therapy to simulate new bone growth that will take advantage of the artificial framework to replace the bone in question.

In other research, they take a slightly different tact to reach their goal.  At the University of Minnesota, a research team is re-growing hearts using a very natural scaffolding material.  They are using hearts to re-grow hearts, in a rather innovative way.  They begin by taking a dead donor organ and put it through a particular cleaning process, washing it with soap essentially, to remove the functional tissue.  All that is left is the underlying cellular scaffolding.  They then “seed” this organ with stem cells to re-grow new heart tissue.  The end result is a beating, functional organ that could then be used for transplant.

The hope of the team is to eventually be able to take any number of potential donor hearts that may not otherwise be usable, reduce them to this scaffolding, then use adult stem cells from the eventual recipient to regrow the organ over the donor scaffolding.  They hope that this will largely bypass rejection issues and, more obviously, vastly increase the possible pool of donor organs by being able to utilize donated organs that may not have otherwise been compatible.  Another benefit is that of a “new” organ, of sorts, rather than a “used” one…  To a degree.  Another exciting possibility is to combine this technique with a nano-engineered framework to replace the need for a donor organ.  The process also demonstrates possibilities for other organs.

Imagine this for a moment.  You are rushed to the hospital for a heart attack, or kidney failure, or liver failure, etc.  The doctors determine that you will need an organ transplant for long term survival.  As it stands, you would go on a waiting list.  In the case of a liver or kidney, perhaps you will be fortunate enough to have a relative who can donate.

What about the alternative?  What if your doctor could take an adult stem cell sample from you and send it to the lab like he might any other sample or culture?  What if they simply selected the appropriate organ scaffolding and used your own cells to grow you a replacement organ, essentially making you your own donor?  In combination with an artificial framework, there would be no need for a donor at all.

While it has been a while, I remember when they announced the first human trial of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart.  It was a revolutionary achievement at the time.  What an incredible leap in process and thinking that we are approaching a point where we can re-create functional organs, rather than try to build mechanical replacements, though I could share some amazing advances in materials and power sources that would make for mind-blowing artificial devices.

Quite often, people hear about the end result of some line of research, but rarely hear about the amazing incremental advancements and discoveries that precede the result.  Research like this, is the part of what is happening in the background, that no one will hear about until that first patient is treated with the final result.  Advances happen as a result of so many smaller discoveries.  If you know what to look for, you can watch history happening before anyone realizes that it’s happening.

Everyone has heard of Einstein and E=MC2, but few know about all the incremental discoveries and theories that led up to the thing that everyone remembers.  What if you could watch the process?  What if you could see it coming and watch it blossom?  Our modern information age has created unprecedented opportunities to do this very thing.  To be able to follow the research happening in so many areas.  I find it very exciting.  It is why ScienceDaily is my favorite site and I read it every day.  It comes before any other news.  I don’t even read the hockey part of the sports page as often.  And anyone who knows me, knows just how much I enjoy my hockey.

I have been a watcher for a very long time.  There are many things that I will probably write about, based on those observations.  Some, you might find fascinating, some not so much perhaps.  That aside, I’m tired of watching.  I want to be in the game!  I want to contribute to history, rather than simply watch it.  Put me in coach, I’m ready to play!

Please watch some video of Dr. Taylor being interviewed about her heart growing research in the lab.

Nature Medicine (2008, February 25). New Method To Create An Artificial Heart May Hold Promise For Transplant Surgery. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2012, from­ /releases/2008/02/080224141414.htm

Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) (2012, July 24). Regenerating bone tissue using gene therapy: New method may work with other tissues as well. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2012, from­ /releases/2012/07/120724114907.htm

University of Minnesota (2008, January 14). Beating Heart Created In Laboratory: Method May Revolutionize How Organ Tissues Are Developed. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2012, from­ /releases/2008/01/080113142205.htm


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