This past Wednesday, the University of Toronto hosted Dr. Anthony Atala, founder and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina for  the annual Irving O. Shoichet lecture. Atala has published over 300 papers, holds over 200 patents, and has received some of the highest awards and honours a scientist can receive. Atala has also served as a special advisor on stem cell policies to US presidents and is something of a scientific celebrity, having appeared on TED, 60 Minutes, and Scientific American, among others.

Atala gave “an overview of the field of regenerative medicine, and how we think about this field in terms of current trends and future concepts,” along with a sampling of ongoing work throughout the past few decades.

Even with organ donation and transplant surgery, Atala explained, “we are still falling short in terms of organ shortage and organ rejection. There are just not many organs to go around, so people are dying daily because of that shortage … that’s why we have this field that we call regenerative medicine which attempts not just to replace organs but also other types of tissues.”

“The three major challenges in our field,” Atala enumerated, “[are] an inherent inability to grow and expand normal primary human cells outside the body in large quantities. Interestingly that’s still a challenge today for some cell types. The second challenge was inadequate biomaterials. And of course many advances have been made in this area. And the third was inadequate vascularity.”

Atala’s work has tackled many of these areas, investigating a variety of biomaterials, growing cells in vitro, and developing effective scaffolding for cells to grow and vascularize when implanted in the body.

Atala has successfully engineered many critical organs and vessels, and not just in laboratory experiments; clinical trials are ongoing, giving numerous patients a chance to live normal lives. Lucas Massella, “now 11 years out from having had his engineered [bladder],” is just one of many patients benefitting from Atala’s research.

One of Atala’s most exciting current projects involves the “printing” of entire organs in a matter of hours using modified desktop inkjet printers, where “instead of ink, you’re actually using cells” printed one layer at a time. He noted that “this technology of course is still in its infancy.”

“For us, we know that these technologies have a potential to work,” said Atala, “We still have many challenges ahead … but we do know that these technologies have the potential to make patients better; and at the end of the day that’s the promise of regenerative medicine, to make patients better.”

Atala also stressed that “it is extremely important for us to always be methodical about how we launch these technologies. Before we ever launch a technology to a patient, we ask ourselves … ‘Are we willing to put this in our own loved one?’ And unless we can really answer that … we would not do it.

“And when we put it in patients we do it slowly, carefully, and with a five year follow up before we even publish our results.”

The work isn’t restricted to him alone. “It takes a major team to make these technologies move forward…This multi-disciplinary approach is very important — we’re very fortunate at the Institute to have over 300 faculty and staff working full-time around the issue of bringing these technologies from bench to bedside.”

Atala closed by calling for continued innovation. “Our number one job is to make our own technologies obsolete — to keep moving forward. And it is up to you, the next generation of scientists to make the new discoveries that will lead us to better tools that will allow us to get these into patients.”

Toronto is home to key researchers in this field. “The regenerative medicine community at the University of Toronto is among the best in the world,” noted Dr. Molly Shoichet, daughter of Irving O. Shoichet and a professor at U of T’s Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME). “This is clear from researchers associated with the [IBBME] and the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative.”

Shoichet’s own lab’s research “focuses on the central nervous system and cancer, with significant advances in cell delivery to the retina with the ultimate aim of overcoming blindness.”

Dr. Shoichet invites anyone interested in learning more to register for the IBBME’s upcoming symposium being held on October 10, 2012, in celebration of its 50th anniversary.  Information on the schedule, speakers, bios and abstracts is available at: http://ibbme.utoronto.ca/50th_Anniversary/Symposium.htm


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