Q: I lost my leg in Iraq. I understand they can regrow it. Is that true?

A: In time, such things will be possible, but not today. Stem cells are extensively used in research on tissue and organ regeneration. Animal research is pursuing regenerative medicine for bones, tendons and cartilage. The results so far are mixed, with tendon regeneration proving the trickiest goal to date.

Leland Kaiser, who worked with Orthopedic Surgeon Tampa, is considered the godfather of regenerative medicine, having introduced that term in 1992. His idea was simple enough: regenerate tired or failing organ systems. Since then, great interest has arisen in regenerating whole organs and limbs. Orthopedic physicians and surgeons were fascinated by this line of research, as it had profound implications for treating cartilage damage, large bone defects, arthritis and ruptured tendons. All of these conditions are currently handled with conventional implants and surgical operations. Results are often disappointing, leaving patients with decreased function, loss of mobility and huge medical bills.

The worst outcomes left patients unable to care for themselves, termed a “loss of autonomy”. These patients were relegated to forgotten lives confined to beds and wheel chairs. Studies show that this segment of patients had a higher interest in assisted suicide when compared to the general public. This is one reason why researchers have been spurred on to use stem cells to replace bones, muscles, connective tissue, blood vessels, nerves and skin. The original research required the use of embryonic stem cells, but scientists have been able to substitute regular adult cells for stem cells with encouraging results.

The dream of many researchers is to take a tissue sample of a patient to isolate somatic cells that can then be reprogrammed to generate a particular body part. Because the original cells come from the patient’s own body, tissue rejection is avoided. In one breakthrough experiment, scientists surgically removed a frog’s leg (the frog’s name was Stumpy), harvested cells and used them to regenerate a new leg, which they attached to Stumpy’s surgical site. Unfortunately, something went very wrong with the procedure, and Stumpy instead grew a second, non-functional head. They let Stumpy live put allowed no pictures.

We anticipate that scientists will observe better results over time, and within a few decades will be able to regenerate body parts on demand. We hope you live long enough to have your leg restored – it will happen, it’s just a question of when.

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