Regenerative medicine: Printed parts for a broken heart

If you needed a kidney, who’s the best person in the world to donate that kidney to you? Your brother? Your sister? Your child? If I told you this was a trick question, you might guess the answer is you. Of all the people in the world, you are the only donor guaranteed to cause no problems with tissue rejection.

By why donate an organ to yourself if it’s already in the right place? Anthony Atala knows the answer.

Here’s the short answer. Let’s say your bladder is diseased or broken (sorry). If you give Atala one little chicklet chunk sliced from the healthy side, he’ll pop it in a Magic Grow oven and make you a new one (Please select one of the following: small, medium, large, or extra large. Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery). Then, like a sea turtle release program, a surgeon will introduce your new bespoke bladder to its natural environment: you. It sounds like science fiction, but he’s been doing this successfully for ten years.

I knew this much, but the images are compelling, and I was surprised by how much farther they’ve gotten in the last few years. In their experimental (non-clinical) work, they’re building highly vascularized organs like the liver. They’re using ink-jet printers to make simple hearts. Watch the video. It’s really mind-boggling. By the time I got to the end of it, I was convinced that Bill Gates must have backups of all his organs in three different redundant facilities. Maybe it’ll be cheap enough for me to do that too some day.

Bonus footnote: I grew up in the shadow of Wake Forest University, so I take hometown pride in pointing out that the leading edge of regenerative medicine is happening at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Larval Debridement Therapy

If you’re looking for new ideas for medical therapies, it’s generally a bad idea to seek inspiration in the therapeutic practices of eighteenth century medicine. Bleeding was prescribed for almost any ailment (including bleeding-induced weakness), and compounds laced with mercury were commonly used in diuretics and antisyphilitics. And how about the practice of placing maggots in festering wounds? Surprisingly, this last techique is seeing a revival.

In the blog Bitesize Bio I came across a press release (PDF) from Monarch Labs on their Larval Debridement Therapy, also known as maggot therapy. To their credit, Monarch doesn’t shrink from using the word “maggot”. No hiding behind fancy latinate euphemisms for them… they spell it right out for you on their home page.

Medical Maggots™ are used to clean (“debride”) and manage wounds in a procedure known as “maggot therapy.” Sometimes wound debridement using maggots is also called “maggot debridement therapy,” “MDT,” “larva therapy,” “larval therapy,” “larva debridement therapy,” or “biodebridement.”

For people prone to slow-healing or non-healing wounds and ulcers, maggots can be a godsend. The real problem is convincing doctors to use them. If you believe the press release, “about 600,000 diabetics get foot ulcers every year nationwide, and traditional medical practices can cost up to $8,000 to treat such wounds,” whereas “… a single course of maggot therapy costs about $100.” What’s more, antibiotics can lose efficacy over time. Green bottle fly larvae, on the other hand, are in no danger of losing their appetite for gleaming pearls of necrotic flesh. Om nom nom.

Welcome to the new frontier of medical science: how’s about a nice whipworm smoothie to go with your maggoty salve? It’s only a matter of time before we rediscover the charms of iatrogenic bloodletting.

For the record, I advise that you not do a Google image search for the words “larval debridement.”

Celebrity diagnosis bingo

Misery loves company. Famous misery brings legions. Whenever somebody famous gets a disease, awareness about that disease spikes dramatically. For instance, can you match these famous people (list 1) with their famous maladies (list 2)?

  1. Lance Armstrong
  2. Michael Jackson
  3. Michael J. Fox

  1. Parkinson’s disease
  2. Testicular cancer
  3. Plastic surgery addiction, cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs certifiably insane

Famous illnesses generate action as well as awareness. When they scraped skin cancer off Ronald Reagan’s nose (basal cell carcinoma!), everybody hurried off to the doctor to get in on the nose-scraping action. The same thing happened with Jimmy Carter’s hemorrhoids. Well not exactly the same thing, but… you know.

Given this situation, two physicians launched a site to turn famous illnesses into teachable moments: Here you can learn not only that Walter Cronkite died of vascular disease of the brain. You also get a run-down on stroke symptoms to watch out for. Beyond this we learn that Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua, suffered the same fate (she was last seen talking out of only one side of her mouth).

It’s a clever idea, and a good way for doctors to get the last word over diagnosis-bungling journalists. [Seen at Bio-IT World]

Dirt vaccines

I knew it would come to this: dirt is officially good for you. The “hygiene hypothesis” has received another shot in the arm in a recent talk by Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College, London: How ‘Dirt’ Could Educate The Immune System And Help Treat Asthma.

What is the hygiene hypothesis? It’s the idea that being exposed to filth early in your life strengthens your immune system, whereas being constantly scrubbed clean by anxious parents merely sets you up for a clock-cleaning viral sucker punch. Your wimpy little immune system will never know what hit it. The same hypothesis explains why polio’s awful bloom happened alongside the rise in modern plumbing. As Jane Smith says in her book Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine

Put simply, paralytic polio was an inadvertent by-product of modern sanitary conditions. When people were no longer in contact with the open sewers and privies that had once exposed them to the polio virus in very early infancy when paralysis rarely occurs, the disease changed from an endemic condition so mild that no one knew of its existence to a seemingly new epidemic threat of mysterious origins and terrifyingly unknown scope.

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, drinkable pig parasites (i.e. barnyard filth) are now being used to combat Crohn’s disease. And now, Professor Openshaw is telling us that the alarming rise in asthma may be due to the same cleanliness your mother so cherished. However, “having many older siblings, attending day care at an early age, or growing up on a farm can help in promoting resistance to disease.” Eventually our best vaccines will consist of finely tuned warmed-over sewage.

The fruits that civilization has given us, boons such as high-fructose corn syrup, Wonder Bread, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and now personal hygiene, we must eventually surrender in the name of robust health. Take two mudpies and call me in the morning.

Crohn Banished by Diet of Worms

Your body evolved in an environment that was vastly filthier than the one you now inhabit. As a result, living with all this good hygiene can actually cause real problems in cases where your body has come to depend on filth. Your gut expects to manage large numbers of parasitic whipworms, for example, and, for the sophisticated readers of this weblog anyway, this just isn’t the case. For people with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), like Crohn’s disease, the gut is violently wrestling with an opponent that never showed up. Or that’s the theory proposed by gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock.

Weinstock had a brilliantly testable idea: feed IBD sufferers a diet of worms. The clinical results, as reported in this New Scientist article, are nothing short of astonishing. Seventy of the hundred Crohn’s sufferers in the study experienced complete remission of the symptoms. If this all holds up, you will soon be able to order a “drinkable concoction containing thousands of pig whipworm eggs” (this from the same company, no lie, that brings you quality medicinal maggots and leeches).

I sense an exciting new high-concept juice bar business opportunity. The “Old McDonald” will be a lightly frothed blend of wheat grass and pig whipworms that can be spooned right out of the barnyard.