Scientists can do amazing things. When I first learned that they could grow skin tissue in a lab I was outdone to say the least. So recently, when reading an article on Fox News.com, I was even more captivated at what their next accomplishment was: viable urethras.
The urethra, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is the tube that carries urine from your bladder to the outside of your body. Researchers have taken the patient’s own cells and grown a urinary tube and have successfully used this manufactured tissue to replace any injured or damaged tissue. This process was tested first in five young boys. The results have produced great excitement among the researchers, Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, and his team. Even when urine flow tests and tube diameter measurements were done, the restructured organs were still working after six years.
The urethras that need repair may be damaged from anything from injury, disease or birth defects. At present, the medical standard for minor problems is to repair the tube, but larger problems have normally been dealt with by doing regular tissue grafts taken from the lining of the cheek. But the latter have resulted in a so-so success rate – meaning half of the grafts fail which causes infection, pain, bleeding and trouble urinating.
So exactly how is this new procedure done? Doctors take a small amount of tissue from the patient, and add in a “soup of growth factor” which will stimulate growth. Cell types are grown in two forms: one for the outer layer of the urethra and one for the inner layer. After enough cells are grown, these are applied to biodegradable material that shapes them correctly, in tubular fashion. Lastly, researchers put tissue into an incubator. Only afterward is the tissue ready to be implanted into the patient. In the trial mentioned earlier, catheters initially used were removed after several weeks, allowing the boys to then urinate through their new urethras. As to when this procedure can be widely used, Atala stated that larger studies would have to be done first.