This new technology builds new body parts from the cells up, enabling patients to receive new transplants from tissues grown from their own bodies. It is a science in its infancy but it has the power to transform the way we think of medicine and ageing.
Behind the doors of the Imperial College London lie some of the most exciting scientific research being undertaken anywhere in the world. Dame Julia Polak is founder of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre at Imperial College.
Extraordinarily, in 1995 she was also the recipient of a heart and lung transplant, making her one of the longest survivors of the procedure. It was an experience which led her to a pioneering career in the fledgling science of growing new organs from cells.
The new technologies mean scientists can create a three-dimensional structure which can be implanted into the patient. There have been some initial clinical trials for the heart and for the bladder. A group in the US created a three-dimensional tissue engineered bladder in the laboratory and implanted it into a child and eight years on the bladder is still working.
Dame Julia Polak admits the new knowledge may mean, in theory, we could live forever.
“We are rewriting the book of medicine in that respect,” she says. “Nobody imagined that you can use even your own cells, grow them in the laboratory and put them back.”
At the moment, most of the new science is still bound within the confines of the laboratory. But Dame Polak seems optimistic about the future.
“Who knows what will happen in five or ten years but there are lots of hurdles to overcome because there are regulatory hurdles, financial hurdles and creating an atmosphere of really multidisciplinary teams including everybody including patients to work together with companies and science. It needs work on it but it’s happening,” she says.
She was asked if in a decade’s time, it was plausible that she might be able to make someone a kidney from their own cells. She clearly sees a great deal more research ahead but the theoretical question wasn't deemed improbable by Dame Polack.
Stanford University in California also has a new technology which could change the world. Professor Ada Poon has developed a revolutionary prototype device. Powered and controlled by radio waves generated outside of the body, it is so small it could move through a patient’s bloodstream, collecting medical data or delivering medication. This could be the start of miniature robot doctors searching through your body, looking for problems and fixing them. It sounds like a science fiction movie but it’s probably too unbelievable for fiction.