Brave New World: How Regenerative Medicine Could Change How We Treat Patients

By: Dr. Pallavi Cherukupally 

What if doctors could help the body heal more efficiently? This is the question at the heart of regenerative therapy. Upon injury, the body has an innate response: defend then heal. But what if its medical scientists could harness that power and then speed it up in a way that is clinically supported? 

This reality is what regenerative medicine is trying to achieve. It is a way to restore the function and structural integrity of damaged organs and tissues. 

Medical scientists generate thousands of pages of research every year in an effort to make these potential treatments widely available for clinical use around the world. Treatments that can help Heart Disease, Cancer, Diabetes, Spinal cord injury, Other neurologic/autoimmune disease and Orthopedic Injuries. 

Here are some promising developments in regenerative medicine: 

Cell Therapy 

When patients receive treatments that are effective at eliminating cancer cells, healthy cells are destroyed right along with them, creating a need for healthy cells. Currently, these cells have to come from a compatible donor of Bone Marrow. Any doctor will know that finding bone marrow from a donor that is both willing and compatible can be a daunting task. 

Regenerative medicine imagines a future where a patient has a store of their own cells that can be called upon and used whenever needed. Patients could regenerate their own system back to a healthy state using their own cells. Take the umbilical cord, for example, which contains blood vessels rich with cells that could be used for this newborn long into adulthood and late into life. 

What if medical facilities were able to collect and store patient cells so the body could use these healthy cells as a way of repairing damages. This opens up the possibility that these regenerative cells could be used in the event of a disease or injury to help a patients’ body restore itself to a healthy state. This is just one concept that scientists in the field of regenerative medicine are investing time and energy into understanding. 

Artificial organs and medical devices 

Improving the quality of life is the goal for all patients. Today, medical scientists are utilizing this technology to grow organs and tissues from the patient’s own cells. Success in any of these attempts will mean the end of rejection and the rapid acceptance of artificial organs. Thus, revolutionizing how scientists work and replace diseased or damaged organs and tissue with lab-grown artificial organs (also called synthetic devices) or biohybrid organs (also called synthetic cellular components.) 

Imagine a patient with a bladder condition. This could be the result of an injury or a birth defect. Currently, these patients must empty their bladder manually, leading to additional complications. Patients unable to urinate can suffer urine back up in the kidneys which could lead to organ damages that are life-threatening. 

However, with breakthroughs in the field of regenerative medicine, several patients received bladders that have been grown from their bodies own cells.  A first for the field and a result of Regenerative Medicine. In prior years, the very notion of a lab-grown organ being transplanted into a patient was a fantasy, now these patients are able to live with a sense of dignity. 

Engineering tissue and biomaterials 

Currently, there are diseases so destructive that the only cure that traditional medicine can provide for the patient is to remove the damaged organ and replace it with an entirely new one. The mission of medical scientists in the regenerative medicine field is to develop therapies that maintain the body so that organ transplants become a thing of the past.  

Taking a look at heart disease, an illness that affects millions of Americans often results in the need for a heart transplant. A treatment that requires the patient to live long enough to receive the heart, survive the procedure and hope the body does not reject what it sees as a foreign object. 

One type of this disease may impact the heart valves and causes them to stop working. Conventional methods for heart valve replacement include a pig aortic valve or a mechanical device implant. These methods come with their own common complications, including blood clots that are known to form around implanted mechanical devices, which forces the patient to rely on prescription blood thinners. 

The good news here is that scientists in the regenerative medicine field have successfully grown viable heart valves from patient cells through the use of available biomaterials to create a sophisticated mold that engineers can use to grow heart valves. 

Eventually, doctors will be able to implant labgrown heart valves that are essentially the patients own cells, making rejection a thing of the past. With hopes that soon, scientists will have the ability to repair damaged valves without any need for surgery. 

 Clinical Translation 

Scientists in the regenerative medicine field continue to make great strides to advance and apply these therapies. Once regenerative medicine, a relatively new medical technology, is widely adopted in clinical practice, analysts predict the US healthcare system and the national economy will benefit enormously. In the United States alone, National Health Expenditures increased 5.9% to a staggering $3,300,000,000 (trillion) in 2016. That’s nearly $10,000 per person and accounts for 17.9% of GDP. 

Among the conditions that medical scientists working in the field of regenerative medicine are putting efforts into developing potential cures, here are a few examples of how the US stands to benefit: 

For heart disease, current treatment costs the United States about $207 billion each year. As one of the #1 causes of death for men and women, on average 611,000 Americans lose their life to heart disease every year. That averages out to 1 in every 4 people. 

For valvular heart disease, the current state of treatment costs nearly $9 billion with over 91,000 hospitalizations and 21,000 deaths on average. That number represents 2.6 percent of patients but rises to over 14 percent for patients 70 years or older. 

For diabetes, more than 20% of total healthcare spending is for patients diagnosed with diabetes. With more than 86 million living with a pre-diabetic condition, that means patient’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases rises along with it.  

The future possibilities of cell therapy, organ growth, tissue engineering, and medicines that can repair and maintain conditions and illnesses is a promising new territory that we hope more doctors and medical professionals will continue their education on.