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Sunday, 1 November, 1998, 03:34 GMT
Thumbs up for organs 'grown to order'
The coral "framework" for Mr Murcia's thumb
A new breakthrough by a team of American scientists is being hailed as next step towards growing human body organs and tissues to order.

The thumb of factory worker Raul Murcia, 36, which was irreparably crushed in an industrial accident, has been grown back using a revolutionary new technique pioneered by doctors at the University of Massachusetts.

They were able to grow new thumb bone tissue to the correct size and dimensions using sea coral as a kind of template.

The coral has a hollow structure that shapes the bone as it regrows, while slowly dissolving before eventually disappearing entirely.

Dr Charles Vacanti: "Very complex problem"
At present, Mr Murcia cannot bend his thumb, but doctors hope to rebuild the joint and add cartilage at a later stage.

Project Leader Dr Charles Vacanti of the University of Massachusetts predicts that within 20 to 30 years the same procedure could allow scientists to grow any organ, for example a kidney or a liver, from a tissue sample.

"It's a very complex problem to replace an entire limb, but I believe, if this is successful, this is the first step in humans to accomplishing such a goal," he said.

This picture provoked protests from animal rights campaigners
Because the tissue is the patient's own, there is no danger of rejection.

The Massachusetts team, which three years ago controversially grew a human ear on the back of a mouse, is already looking at the possibility of producing a pancreas for diabetics and nerve tissue for stroke victims.

The successful operation follows a breakthrough at Harvard Medical School in the science of growing human brain cells.

Assistant Professor of Biology Evan Snyder has come up with a procedure for infinitely multiplying brain stem cells under lab conditions, opening up the possibility of a treatment for brain damage.

The BBC's Andrew Bomford
"First step into a new world"
See also:

14 Feb 98 | Sci/Tech
Cloning under the microscope
15 Feb 98 | Sci/Tech
The regeneration game
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