He’s the forward-leaning medical researcher whose development in the 1990s of custom-grown human organs allowed more patients to receive life-saving transplants. Today, he is investigating the potential for 3-D printing to produce skin grafts and brand-new organs made of patients’ own cells.
In March, Anthony Atala’s Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine announced it was kicking off a five-year, $20 million project aimed at speeding up the availability of tissues and organs made by the lab. The public-private partnership involves the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. For the 450 researchers at Atala’s lab, it would allow for the automated production of replacement organs in order to “scale [the process] up and make [it] affordable so we can get it to patients faster,” Atala says.
Using a patient’s own genetic material to build new organs eliminates the risk of rejection and infection after organ transplants and reduces harmful side effects from some of the drugs transplant patients must take after a surgery. Atala’s team is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to gain approval for human trials, but no date has been set yet.
As part of a separate, $24 million research project, Atala and his lab are working on the “body on a chip” program, which builds lab-engineered miniature organ-like hearts, livers, and blood vessels that will be used to test the effects of chemical and biologic agents and potential treatments.
For diseases like cancer, Atala says, “We take a small biopsy of the tumor, and we create these organs on a chip to test therapy agents and then figure out what’s the best treatment” before any drug or therapy is used on a patient. Once the method is perfected, people diagnosed with tumors or cancers won’t have to experiment with different treatments, searching for one that is effective — the doctors will have figured that out in the lab.
“They’re really personalized therapies,” Atala says.
The desperation of patients led Atala to his current work. When he was a young medical researcher making the rounds at Boston Children’s Hospital while a fellow at Harvard Medical School in the early 1990s, he grew frustrated watching young patients endure lengthy waits for organ transplants, with some dying during those periods.
Along with his team at Wake Forest University, in 2004 Atala kicked off an ambitious project to grow human organs in a laboratory using patients’ own cells. In the late 1990s, he had hand-built scaffolding with collagen and polymers so patients’ cells could regenerate around it.
“It sounded very science-fictiony at the time,” Atala said in December 2016, “but I was certain that it was the future.”
After successfully carrying out in 1999 the first of a series of lab-grown organ transplants — new bladders for children with a severe form of spina bifida — Atala took regenerative medicine to the next level. He and his team created the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System, a 3-D printer that uses patients’ cells to build internal organs, which has since proved its ability to print cartilage, bone, and muscle tissue and implant them in rodents.
In February 2016, Atala and his team reported that an ear implanted under the skin of a mouse had developed blood vessels, an encouraging signal that the researchers were on the right path. While heart, kidney, and lung tissue currently remain out of reach because they are the most complex to create, today Atala’s team is working on more than 30 different replacement tissues and organs, including ears, jaw bones, and bladders.
“The work has tremendous potential clinical benefits,” said David Joseph, the chief of pediatric urology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.
As Atala has pointed out, his work addresses an urgent need: In recent years, the number of patients requiring an organ transplant has doubled, and on average, 20 Americans die every day while waiting for an organ transplant. In a TED Talk in March 2011, he called the dearth of organs a “public health crisis.”
Now, with large institutions getting on board, Atala’s team may be poised to address that challenge and use what they learn to work toward defeating other killers.
Paul McLeary is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Atala has applied for or received more than 250 national and international patents.