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Robert BellRobert G. Bell, Ph.D., is president and owner of Drug and Biotechnology Development LLC, a consultancy to the pharmaceutical industry and academia for biological, drug, and device development.

Although I’m from the George Reeves Superman era, I recall my younger brother (whose age gap between us fades as I age) loving Lee Majors as the Bionic Man. It was the show’s character Oscar Goldman who said “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that that (bionic) man.”

It seems scientists at Harvard Apparatus Regenerative Technology (HART) were inspired and have succeeded in synthesizing human tracheas. The tracheas are made by growing a patient’s own stem cells on a synthetic scaffold. This technology may be adapted to create other organs in the future, such as a replacement esophagus, heart valve, or kidneys. HART creates the scaffolds by spinning nanofibers into a tube that is custom fit for each patient, and then the scaffold is seeding with the patient’s stem cells. Growing the patient’s stem cells on the scaffold provides a good environment for bone marrow stem cells that can then develop into various cell types both in the incubator and after they are implanted into a patient. Since 2008, eight patients in Russia have undergone trachea transplantation using synthetic windpipes, and HART is working with the Food and Drug Administration to initiate clinical trials in the United States.

shutterstock_73956799The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston was also listening to Oscar Goldman. They have succeeded in growing human lungs in the laboratory using components from the lungs of deceased children. The researchers stripped one of the lungs down to the pulmonary “skeleton” of just collagen and elastin, which are the main proteins in connective tissue. Using the pulmonary skeleton as a scaffold, researchers harvested cells from the other lung, which were applied to the scaffold. After four weeks of incubation, the researchers harvested a complete human lung. It is hoped this technology will lead to use in human lung transplantation in the not too distant future.

Yes, Oscar, there is a bionic man!

What ethical concerns do you have with this type of work?