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The second part of our series on programming cells.

What if, as a baby, your intestines didn’t work? While normally a life-threatening condition, scientists hope that in the future, bioengineering could save you.

Of Mice and Men: Tissue Engineering

Tissue engineering has already achieved wonders, but scientists in bioengineering and biotechnology have their sights set high. Bioengineering has helped wounded war veterans re-grow muscle tissue and burn victims receive skin grafts, but doctors, scientists and surgeons are working hard at regenerating more complex organs like hearts, lungs, and intestines using stem cells.

The New York Times recently profiled Dr. Tracy Grikscheit, a surgeon at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, a researcher in the field of tissue engineering. She removes intestinal tissue from rats and mice to see if it can, with help from tissue engineering, regenerate within the body. Her goal is to be able to do the same for humans in the future. Instead of just cutting away dead intestines, Grikscheit is working towards a day when surgeons could also cut a bit of healthy intestines away along with the dead tissue, place it in a bundle of stem cells, and implant it back in the body for healthy re-growth.

How would this work?  The common practice today is tissue engineering, where intestinal cells (in current studies, from mice), are cut up, treated with enzymes to form clusters of mixed cells (including stem cells), and hung on a biodegradable plastic, which serves as a scaffold that orients the cells in the right way. The engineered replacement is then swapped for the bad organ.

But there is another side of the stem cell. If not controlled properly, it can keep growing without limits and increases the risk of forming into tumor. Stem cell development can be closely controlled in the laboratory, but when the cells are placed in the body it is a totally different situation. This is why a lot of research still needs to be done before stem cell therapy can be implemented in the clinic.

Grikscheit has had success in implanting the treated clusters directly back into the digestive tract of the mice, where it re-grows just like intestinal tissue. These cell clusters adapt into the body and follow the commands to differentiate into intestinal tissues. There is a 2-way communication between the clusters and the body, and that’s why it’s so innovative.

Are stem cells the key to the future of medicine?  

Stem cells are rightly named: they are like the stems from which leaves grow. They are versatile and pluripotent, meaning they can be programmed into becoming a specific kind of cell. Somewhat controversial because some stem cells are taken from human embryos, the study of stem cells has just had a breakthrough.

Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize last month for discovering that mature skin, intestinal and nerve cells in mice could be programmed into immature, pluripotent stem cells by introducing just a few genes. This means that patients with skin diseases, for example, could be reprogrammed and analyzed in a laboratory, possibly with the goal of developing medical therapies for them.

Thus, stem cells may be the key to the medical practices of the future. Labster, for one, are excited about how biotechnology and bioengineering are part of these innovations, and we want to get current life students excited about the possibilities, seeing as they will become the doctors and scientists of this exciting future.