Men who need penile reconstruction could soon be given organs grown from their own cells in the lab, according to a team of scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The research is led by Anthony Atala, director of the institute. Atala is no newbie to the lab-grown organ scene: In 2011, he gave a popular TED talk on his experiments with 3D printed kidneys. And earlier this year, he and his team announced that they'd successfully implanted lab-grown vaginas in four patients.
Now they're ready to try a similar surgery for men with damaged or missing sex organs. But how does one grow a penis? Atala starts with a donor organ, then washes it in detergent to get rid of any cells that might be rejected by the new host. After a few weeks, his team is left with a sort of "scaffold" of the original organ.
Meanwhile, cells from whatever remains of the host's original penis are cultivated in the lab, giving the team a nice supply of the different types of cells required. Once the scaffold is ready, it's seeded with these cultivated cells. Current reconstruction techniques are rudimentary in comparison — with doctors covering prosthetic implants with skin from the patient's arm or thigh.
So far, Atala and his team have had great success using the technique in rabbits, the Guardian reports, and they hope to be undergoing human trials in five years.
Unfortunately, the technique won't be suitable for female-to-male sex transition surgery. It relies heavily on the use of cells specific to the penis, Atala told the Guardian, so the host needs to have some for doctors to work with. And it's not clear yet — and probably won't be, until human trials are underway — just how functional these lab-grown organs will be.