Skip to main content

Inside Regenerative Medicine

N.C. Researchers Turn Sci-Fi Movie Fantasy to Medical Miracle

Courtesy of Wake Forest University School of Medicine

It’s happening right now in North Carolina:

  • Cells are evolving from still, tiny wet blobs into pulsing tissue that beats like the heart that produced them.
  • Bladders grow on scaffolds, also “seeded” by cells from diseased donors who need the new ones.
  • Doctors collect cells from umbilical cords donated by parents of newborns. They convert the formerly discarded material into therapies for children with cerebral palsy and other disorders.

Early Dreams, Great Science Bridge to Commercial, Therapeutic Footholds

Regenerative medicine became prominent here as early as 1998, when some 80 scientists (about 25 of them students) gathered at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. They exchanged ideas and shared their research findings on engineering blood vessels, bone, fat, skin and other tissues and organs.

Every year since, the gathering now known as the North Carolina Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (NCTERM) Conference has grown in attendance and scope.

The most high-profile practitioners of this “body-building” approach to therapies are Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Duke cord-blood pioneer Joanne Kurtzberg, M.D.

Atala’s successes in the lab are being translated into commercial potential by Tengion, a publicly traded Pennsylvania company that maintains its research team close to Atala’s, in Winston-Salem.

Kurtzberg, meanwhile, runs the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, one of the largest public cord blood banks in the world, and oversees the state-of-the-art Translational Cell Therapy Center, both on the Duke campus.

Military, Civilian Benefits and Budgets Merge

The Pentagon has put more than $42 million into a multi-campus consortium involving Atala and others, seeking to develop battle-wound treatments:

  • Instant spray-on skin cells for quick burn repair
  • Organ replacements grown from a soldier's own damaged ones
  • Regenerated limbs, faces and other body parts

The academic groups are called the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The consortia, working with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, is dedicated to repairing battlefield injuries using the body's natural healing powers to restore or replace damaged tissue and organs.

It’s important work for North Carolina, home to some of the nation’s most prominent military bases. And these therapies developed for the battlefield will ultimately be used everywhere.