The Latest Advancement in Regenerative Medicine Is Lab-Grown Vaginas

Medical research continues to succeed in engineering organs. But that's not enough.

Yes, that is what the headline implies. (National Journal)

Add nostrils and vaginas to the readily expanding list of human tissues doctors can now grow in laboratories and successfully implant in patients.

Two long-term studies just published in the influential medical journal The Lancet outline the success doctors have achieved in transplanting both body parts. In the first study, doctors at Wake Forest University harvested cells from the genitals of four teenage girls born with a syndrome that results in underdeveloped sexual organs, coaxed those cells into a regenerative state, grew them on a scaffold, and then transplanted the resulting tissue.

After eight years of follow up, "the organs continue to function as if they were native tissue and all recipients are sexually active, report no pain, and are satisfied with their desire/arousal, lubrication, and orgasm."

In the second study, five people had their nostrils reconstructed with their own cartilage. That tissue was harvested from their own noses, and coaxed into expanding in volume by a factor of 40. It was then implanted. The research concludes that "the clinical reconstruction of the nasal [lobe] after resection of a non-melanoma skin cancer is safe and feasible."

While these findings are certainly eyebrow-raising — and lend hope to those suffering with disfiguration — the more important aspect of their publication can be found in an op-ed published alongside the research.

Drs. Martin A. Birchall, and Alexander M. Seifalian write that these findings can be just as frustrating as they are promising. This research is considered disruptive medicine, and disruptions can take a very, very long time to make their way into mainstream medicine. And the high cost of developing such technology often poses roadblocks. Birchall and Seifalian write:

MRI scanners continue to improve generationally. These changes, which improve the patient's experience and accuracy of diagnosis, are sustaining innovations: they improve an existing system that is understood by patients and that supports specialised industry, doctors, and health-care systems. By contrast, tissue engineering, and the various shades of regenerative and cellular therapies it partners, is a disruptive technology. ...

Early automobile technology, although highly innovative, was the preserve of those who could afford it for many years. It was only when Henry Ford's mass production brought automobiles to everyone's street, in numbers yet at affordable cost, that the industry of the horse-drawn carriage passed away. These two Lancet studies show that those who practise conventional tissue reconstruction and organ transplantation, and the health-care and commercial industries which support them, should finally be taking the quirky minnows of tissue engineering quite seriously. Disruptive innovation might be nigh.

As I wrote in November, it will be some time before lab-grown organs are commonly available. Clinical trials for new procedures take decades. And "private industry is going to have to raise millions and millions of dollars not around the science, but around the practicality," William Wagner, director of regenerative medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, told me then.

Roadblocks involving time and money are not exclusive to regenerative medicine. Take antibiotic research. Approvals of new antibiotics are currently at their lowest rate, at a time when threat of drug-resistant strains haven't been higher. Or even sunscreen. Ingredients that European companies have been using for years, which work better than the ones currently available in the United States, are stuck in regulatory limbo.

That's why Birchall and Seifalian provide a good reminder: Let's turn some of these gee-whiz studies into reality.