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Monday, October 12, 1998 Published at 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK


Skin and bone bank

Test tube tissue could soon be available for operations

Researchers at Imperial College in London are growing human tissues in test tubes. They hope to develop a bank of skin muscle and bone to be used by transplant surgeons, and, in time, to grow more complex organs - such as livers and kidneys. BBC science reporter Pallab Ghosh reports.

Julia Pollock is a research scientist. In 1995 she was trying to find a cure for a fatal lung disease. By a bizzare quirk of fate she discovered she had that very same disease.

With only weeks to live, her life was saved by a multiple organ transplant, in which she received two new lungs and a new heart.

Pallab Ghosh reports on the latest research
As she waited - not knowing whether suitable organs could be found in time - she wondered whether she could develop a better treatment.

"I was thinking very heavily how one could alter this fate that we were given. One possibility was creating a tissue in the test tube so we are not so desperate to find a suitable donor," she said.

Three years on, her dream is about to become a reality. She is now in charge of Britain's biggest tissue engineering laboratory. Based in West London, her team are growing bone and cartilage in a test tube.

Ambitious plans

[ image: Researchers are on the verge of major breakthroughs]
Researchers are on the verge of major breakthroughs
Working with Professor Larry Henge of Imperial College, the team has more ambitious plans.

Professor Henge said: "There are opportunities for replacing most of the parts of the body if the basic science succeeds."

Larry Henge is an engineer. As a young man he designed glazes for clay pots. But after a doctor friend of his returned from the Vietnam War, he devoted himself to finding a way of repairing the shattered bodies of soldiers returning home from the battlefield.

Initially funded by the US Military, Professor Henge developed a glassy material chemically treated so that bone cells would grow on its surface. Now - with recent developments in molecular biology - it is possible to do much, much more.

"The keys are now being determined that should make it possible to use tissue engineering to provide parts of lungs, parts of arteries, heart valves. It really is unlimited," Professor Henge said.

Already clinical trials have begun in the US - testing out laboratory grown skin and cartilage on humans.

Re-grow blood vessels

Maryland based company Human Genome Sciences has found a way to re-grow blood vessels in the body - by injecting a gene into the surrounding muscle.

Company boss Dr William Hasseltine said: "Patients that receive this gene put directly into heart muscle do indeed have improved heart function and improved circulation, and patients who might otherwise have had their limbs amputated have those amputations either postponed for some time or, in some cases, indefinitely."

[ image: Cloned sheep Dolly and Bonny the lamb]
Cloned sheep Dolly and Bonny the lamb
And in Scotland the researchers that created Dolly the sheep have created a £6m company to adapt their cloning technology.

Ultimately they hope to develop a treatment where a single cell taken from a human patient can be grown up into organs that can be transplanted into the patient without fear of rejection.

At her laboratory, Julia Pollock is developing the basic science enable clinical trails on humans to begin here in the next few years.

She can imagine a day where each of us has a spare set of vital organs kept in cold storage at home.

"It would be ideal, especially for paranoid people who are completely hypochondriac!" she said.

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