June 23, 1998 Researchers at the University of Toronto have initiated an international research project focused on creating a tissue-engineered heart, suitable for transplant within 10 years.
"We're shooting big," says Professor Michael Sefton of U of T's Institute of Biomedical Engineering. "Our vision is that we'll be able to pop out a damaged heart and replace it as easily as you would replace a carburetor in a car."
Earlier this month, a group of 13 distinguished scientists, engineers and clinicians from across North America and Europe met in Toronto to examine biomedical solutions to the worldwide shortage of vital organs. They developed a plan that uses tissue-engineering strategies to create living replacement organs. The project, known as the Living Implants From Engineering (LIFE) initiative, will eventually lead to a number of organ replacements; initially, however, it will focus on the heart and is expected to produce significant spin-off benefits.
"In order to ‘grow' a heart, we first need to ‘grow' a heart valve, " says Sefton, adding that the creation of transplantable valves will substantially reduce the high risks of heart valve surgery. While some engineered tissues are already on the market, other tissues -- such as cardiac muscle -- have been difficult to reproduce. Sefton, who initiated the partnership, feels significant results can be achieved more quickly through collaboration rather than competition.
Tissue engineering combines biotechnology and bioengineering techniques to create a new generation of materials or devices. Currently scientists use one of two approaches in tissue engineering -- either growing cells in a culture and planting them on a material in the body (used to create bone or skin substitutes) or implanting material in the body which then induces a specific response such as tissue regeneration (used to induce the formation of new blood vessels).
Sefton estimates the project will require billions of dollars in funding over 10 years. "We're hoping the scope and possibilities of this project will catch the public's imagination," he says.
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