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Surprising Science

Big Idea: Tissue Engineering

The burgeoning field of regenerative medicine, or tissue engineering, seeks to harness the body’s own healing powers.

This idea was contributed by Big Think Delphi Fellow Ali Khademhosseini.

What’s the Big Idea?

The age of transplants, surgical reconstruction and dialysis machines, is rapidly receding, and in its place stands the burgeoning field of regenerative medicine, or tissue engineering, which seeks to harnesses the body’s own healing powers.

Why Is It Groundbreaking?

Tissue engineering, a field stitched together from biology, chemistry, engineering, and medicine, aims to create new organs and body parts out of your own cells or someone with a similar biological makeup. But the traditional approach of “seeding” a three-dimensional, biodegradable scaffolding with cells has not proven as successful as hoped. The complexity of natural tissues has thus far proven difficult to duplicate, says Dr. Ali Khademhosseini, Associate Professor of Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences and Technology program.

Khademhosseini hopes to fix that with a new approach that treats cells like Legos rather than seeding them onto a pre-existing scaffold. As in nature, he begins with a bottom up approach, creating individual “tissue modules” from specialized cells. These modules are then “stacked” in such a way that they form the right organ: myofibers for muscles, lobules for livers, nephrons for kidneys, etc. Since he is working with individual modules, he can shape them into whatever form he wishes, just like Legos.

Khademhosseini also sees potential in the technology for what he calls “biological robotic structures” that might be integrated into the human body—robotic muscles made of biological material, both stronger and quicker to heal than natural muscles. So, what happens when that new improved muscle is turned into a heart stronger and more resilient than what Mother Nature herself can create? 

Why Should You Care?

A faster hundred yard dash, a cure for diabetes and kidney failure, perhaps even eternal life for those who can afford to pay—these are just some of the potential applications of tissue engineering. Khademhosseini expresses concern over the accessibility of such technology, and the implications that in the eternal quest for survival only the rich will enjoy this new definition of fitness, but we have time to debate the ethics before these technologies become widely available.  


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