Lab-grown Sex Organs Are Revolutionizing Transplant Surgeries
Breakthroughs in artificial genitals implants may soon lead to an incredible milestone.
In recent decades, medical researchers have made significant progress in improving the techniques and outcomes associated with genital reconstruction surgery. Such breakthroughs have proven important for people born intersex, suffering gender dysphoria, or with damaged reproductive organs.
Researchers have also taken giant leaps forward in transplanting donor organs. Since the 1970s, a small number of women with vaginal hypoplasia—a rare congenital disorder affecting development of the vagina and uterus—have successfully received vaginal transplants. In 2011, Turkish doctors performed the first uterus transplant to achieve long-term function. Last year, US doctors attempted to follow suit; unfortunately, an infection necessitated the organ's removal.
Surgeons have even begun to perform successful penile transplants. In 2014, doctors in South Africa successfully transplanted a penis onto a man who had been injured during a traditional circumcision ceremony. He later fathered a child. Two years later, American doctors were also successful in performing a penis transplant.
Now, progress is also moving in a new direction: the creation of artificial reproductive organs in labs.
Researchers have successfully grown a variety of human tissues in laboratories, often using stem or progenitor cells, which are extracted, cultivated, then molded using three-dimensional scaffolds. So far, scientists have managed to engineer skin, blood vessels, cartilage, and even organs such as tracheas, hearts, and even miniature brains.
Unsurprisingly, this technology is also being applied to create artificial genitals.
In 1999, Dr. Anthony Atala, a urological surgeon and pioneer of tissue engineering at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, led a team that performed the first successful transplant of bioengineered organs into human subjects.
Using cells extracted from seven patients suffering spina bifida, a birth defect that causes problems with urinary control, Atala and his colleagues also grew artificial bladders and implanted them into the patients. The advantage of such a technique is that it sidesteps the need for anti-rejection medication. As Atala announced in 2006, the bladders were fully functional.
In the meantime, he had already moved on to the creation of laboratory-grown vaginas. Between 2005 and 2008, he and his team implanted bioengineered vaginas, constructed from cells grown on degradable vagina-shaped scaffolds, into four teenage girls with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome, one of the conditions that cause vaginal hypoplasia. Follow-up tests found that the women were able to have normal sex lives, and possibly even become pregnant.
So what’s the next step? Artificial human penises, says Atala. Due to its cell density and complex structure, the human penis is a difficult organ to recreate. But there has been significant progress.
In 2008 Atala and his colleagues transplanted artificial penises onto twelve rabbits. The organs were created using cells cultivated in a lab dish and seeded onto the cartilage of an actual rabbit penis, which provided the ideal scaffolding. Of the twelve rabbits, all attempted to mate, and four produced offspring.
Since then, Atala has succeeded in growing several human penises in the lab. He hopes to begin with partial replacements to help people with damaged reproductive organs, or who suffer from erectile dysfunction due to degraded, scarred tissue. While he has yet to operate on human patients, Atala claims that the ability to do so is just around the corner. Given his team’s successes so far, he has ample reason for confidence.
Artificial genitals for both sexes seem to be a certain part of our future.