Tissue engineering: Grow your own smart organs

Robert Langer thinks one day we could grow tissues and organs from our cells, which contain sensors that can alert you when illness is about to strike.

The idea behind tissue engineering is that you take plastics, add cells to it, and if you use the right kind of plastics and the right structure and add the right media to the mix, then you have the ability to make skin, bone, or any tissue or organ in the body.

There’s been significant progress in this field, says Robert Langer, professor in biomedical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  We can already make skin for patients with burns or skin ulcers, and others like corneas and liver are in trials. Langer hopes we will be able to do this for all tissues.

Immune rejection and integration are big challenges, though. Langer’s team are working on creating new materials that are better for stem cells to grow on, they are working on ways of synthesising thousands of new chemicals that may perform better, and they are creating new imaging techniques.

But one day smart tissues and organs may be possible, he says. You could have sensors that could tell you how they are doing. For instance, you could put nanowires into hearts that could sense signals like oxygen levels. Some day these could even send signals to computers or monitoring devices. So rather than wait for the event of a heart attack or stroke it could alert you in advance that you need to go to the hospital.

Is this possible? In his field, as in others, people often tell you that you are wrong about ideas or that they are impossible, says Langer. But in his view, if you really persevere and keep trying, there’s not a lot you can’t do.

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