Tissue Engineering

Tissue engineering is an amazing process that scientists recently developed to help replace damaged parts of the body. Someday they hope to be able to grow various organs, even hearts and lungs, in the lab for people who need transplants. However, tissue engineering is still very new, and skin is about the only body part that so far can be successfully engineered in a lab for use in humans.

Engineered skin is made by taking skin cells from a person who, for instance, has suffered severe burns and cannot re-grow enough of his or her own skin naturally to cover the burned portions. Those skin cells are used to grow pieces of new skin in a special lab. The new skin can then be grafted over the burned areas and help them heal.

It is common for people with diabetes to have cuts or wounds on their feet that do not heal, even after many months of treatment, because their illness damages the skin of the feet and legs. These wounds can become seriously infected, which can lead to amputation. It has been found that tissue-engineered skin can be used to help these wounds heal. Unlike the skin used for some burn victims, this new skin is made from tissues other than the patient's, but it works very well. The doctor carefully cleans the wound and then places the tissue-engineered skin over it. It grafts with the person's own skin, and the body restores the injured area. Treating these wounds with tissue-engineered grafts promotes faster healing more often than the usual treatment with moist dressings.

A strip of skin grown in a laboratory can be used to treat diabetics with wounds that are slow to heal.

It is also less risky and less expensive than taking live skin from a donor.

Tissue engineering also presents many opportunities for researchers looking for improved diabetes treatments or a cure. They believe that beta cells can eventually be tissue-engineered to replace the damaged or missing ones in the pancreas of a person with type 1 diabetes. These cells would be placed into the person's pancreas, where they could grow and reproduce to make adequate amounts of insulin once again.

Large-scale research in this area faces one large obstacle, though. Many millions of beta cells are needed for this research, along with a continuing supply for many years. But not enough beta cells are available to researchers (these cells come from deceased human donors). Furthermore, those donor cells that have been available have not been able to survive or maintain their ability to produce insulin in the lab for very long.

However, some of the scientists doing this research have been able to produce a "cell line" of beta cells, similar to lines of stem cells, that has shown promising results for tissue engineering. These specially created cells would be an excellent and abundant alternative to donated cells. When they were tested in diabetic mice in 2005, the new beta cells controlled the mice's blood sugar levels for just over four months and produced about 40 percent as much insulin of normal beta cells. Although these results were not permanent and need improvement, this is an excellent outcome for an early experimental treatment. However, for such a treatment to be fully tested and declared safe for humans will take years.

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