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Anaheim 99 Sunday, 24 January, 1999, 14:49 GMT
Foreskin foresight
Matt McGrath
The BBC's Matt McGrath reports from the AAAS meeting in Anaheim

AAAS Expo
The discarded skin from circumcision operations is providing the cells scientists need to make spare tissue for transplants.

It is an amazing revelation, but the moral climate in the United States and the demand for transplant surgery has forced researchers into innovative ways of thinking.

"From one foreskin we can get enough cells to make five million implants for diabetic foot ulcers," says Dr Gail Naughton, President and Chief Executive Officer of Advanced Tissue Sciences, a leading company in the field of tissue engineering.

"So right now we have enough cells present for years and years of successful treatment of these patients." Scientists have always had the dream of growing organs for transplant in lab.

They started with cells and by placing them on a template they have managed to grow parts of organs and pieces of bone. But their most successful efforts to date have been in growing skin, which has been used on burns victims and those diabetic foot ulcers.

Foetal tissue

Sourcing the cells to start with, however, has been a major hurdle. Pro-life groups have objected to the use of foetal tissue, and the size and strength of this lobby has made the use of these cells very difficult in North America.

But the need for donor tissue is growing. Every 11 minutes, someone new gets added to the list of patients in the United States waiting for a transplant.

It is a major problem experienced in most advanced countries where the technology has become a victim of its own success - transplants work and an educated public are not slow in demanding the life-saving surgery if that is what is required.

Many scientists have high hopes for stem cell research. Stem cells are the "parents" of all the tissues in the body. If these cells can be controlled and directed, lab-grown tissue may well become very big business.

The US Government's decision this week to fund the research - even though it too has ethical problems attached - will greatly accelerate the technology. Although, any benefits are sure to come too late for some.

An explosion in hepatitis C infections will push up the demand for liver transplants by over 100% in the next 10 years.

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