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TISSUE ENGINEERING U.S. Patent No. 6,171,610 Issued:January 2001 to Charles Vacanti, Joseph Vacanti, and Martin Vacanti Assigned tUniversity of Massachusetts; Children’s Medical Center Corporation Prosecuted by:Fish & Richardson Growing new tissue to replace a failed spinal cord, pancreas, liver or retina, sounds like science fiction. But in the last five to 10 years, visible strides have been made in tissue engineering — even if we’re not quite building the bionic man yet. Among the pioneers are the Vacanti brothers (Charles and Martin at the University of Massachusetts; Joseph at Harvard), whose patent covers a technique that has already shown promise in treating spinal cord injuries in rats. You may need a Ph.D. to understand the patent, but any 5-year-old can appreciate the results. The Vacanti brothers removed an entire chunk of a rat’s spine, guaranteeing that the spinal cord would not regenerate on its own, and leaving the rat without the use of its hind legs. Into this gap they applied a spongelike scaffolding filled with a special hydrogel containing adult stem cells. The cells then grew into nerve cells for the spine, regenerating the missing tissue and creating their own scaffolding (replacing the sponge, which is designed to dissolve over time). “The treated rats regained 90 percent use of their hind limbs,” says Peter Fasse, the Fish & Richardson attorney who prosecuted the patent. Next up: tests in larger animals and, within the next 10 years, humans. Alan Cohen is a free-lance writer based in New York City. His e-mail is [email protected].

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