When Anthony Atala, MD, arrived at the Medical Center in January 2004 to start the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a new era began of national and international breakthroughs in a field that holds the potential to develop replacement organs and tissues for virtually every part of the human body.
Indeed, the interdisciplinary teams at WFIRM, located in Piedmont Triad Research Park, are working to engineer these replacement tissues and organs and to develop healing cell therapies for more than 30 different areas of the body—all with the goal to cure, rather than merely treat, disease.
Atala, who was recruited from Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, rapidly expanded his existing body of work, the highlight of which had been bioengineered bladders implanted into humans. The long-term successful results from that work were reported in 2006.
Milestones Being to Pile Up
In 2007, WFIRM identified and characterized a new class of stem cells derived from amniotic fluid and placenta that hold promise for the treatment of many diseases and which have been proven to differentiate into many tissue types, including blood vessel, bone, liver and muscle. In 2008, WFIRM was chosen to co-lead the $85 million, federally funded Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The goal of that institute is to develop clinical therapies to focus on burn repair, wound healing without scarring, craniofacial reconstruction, limb reconstruction, regeneration or transplantation, and compartment syndrome (a condition related to inflammation after surgery or injury that leads to increased pressure, impaired blood flow nerve damage and muscle death).
In 2010, WFIRM became the first team in the world to engineer functional experimental solid organs (miniature livers and penile erectile tissue). This research holds future promise as a new source of organs for transplant.
WFIRM’s work to create functional urethras implanted in human patients was named in December 2011 by Time magazine as one of the world’s 10 most important medical breakthroughs.
In September 2013, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific, awarded a $24 million federally funded project to WFIRM to develop a “body on a chip’’ to accelerate the development of antibodies to protect against chemical or biological attacks. WFIRM’s goal is to build a miniaturized system of human organs to model the body’s response to harmful agents and develop potential therapies. Also in September 2013, WFIRM was chosen to lead the second, $75 million phase of the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
In 2014, a research team led by Atala reported on the first human recipients of laboratory-grown vaginal organs. Four teenage girls had been born with a rare genetic condition in which the vagina and uterus were underdeveloped or absent. These girls received vaginal organs engineered with their own cells. The girls underwent surgery between 2005 and 2008, and the 2014 follow-up report showed the organs had normal function. The treatment could potentially be applied to patients with vaginal cancer or injuries.
The work of the institute has been featured on the TV show 60 Minutes, as well as numerous other national and international publications and media.
“Our current research focuses on a wide range of engineered tissues with the aim of making a lasting impact on conditions ranging from diabetes to heart disease,” Atala said. “We have many challenges to meet, but are optimistic about the ability of the field to have a significant impact on human health. We believe regenerative medicine promises to be one of the of the most pervasive influences on public health in the modern era.”
Watch Dr. Atala explain this ground breaking work to CBS.