Anthony Atala, M.D., an internationally recognized leader in tissue engineering, a science devoted to growing new tissues and organs from a patient’s own cells, will join Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in January 2004. With his move to Winston-Salem, a startup company that holds licenses for the technologies developed by Atala will open in the Piedmont Triad Research Park. Projections call for the company to have about 160 employees within three years.
“This is a marvelous opportunity for Winston-Salem and for our Medical Center,” said Richard H. Dean, president and chief executive officer of Wake Forest University Health Sciences. “It’s an exciting area of science with endless possibilities. Imagine being able to create replacement organs from a patient’s own cells.”
Atala will join the Medical Center faculty as chairman of the Department of Urology and director of a new Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering Institute. A team of about 20 physicians, scientists and engineers will join Atala at Wake Forest within a year. He will follow David McCullough, M.D., as chairman of the Department of Urology. “We are very proud of the accomplishments of the department and the faculty in Urology,” said Dean. “Our Medical Center has been ranked as one of the best hospitals in urology by U.S. News and World Report for six of the last seven years. Dr. Atala’s leadership will only strengthen that reputation.”
Atala is currently the director of Tissue Engineering and Cellular Therapeutics at Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. His work focuses on growing new human tissues and organs to repair those that are defective at birth or destroyed by disease. Atala has created bioengineered urethras, the tube through which urine is excreted from the bladder, that have been successfully implanted in humans. In addition, engineered cartilage cells are currently being tested in the bladder neck and in ureters. These tubes carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder.
Atala has also successfully created blood vessels, muscle, bladders, wombs, and vaginas that have been tested in large animals and are close to being ready to test in humans.
“The advantage of these engineered organs and tissues is that they are made from the patient’s own cells so there is no risk of rejection,” said Atala.
“Every year in this country, people die because there are not enough donated organs available for transplantation,” said Dean. “This technology is exciting because it does not rely on cloning or stem cells.”
The bioengineering process works by taking healthy cells from a patient’s organ or tissue. These cells are grown in a culture until there are enough to place onto a specially constructed biodegradable mold, where they continue to grow. The molds are shaped like a heart valve, bladder, ureter tube, or whatever organ is needed. The newly engineered organ or tissue is transplanted into the body, where it continues to grow. “The cells know what to do,” said Atala in July 2000 article in Discover. “They have all the genetic information in place. You just have to give them the right conditions to do it in – the right temperature, the right nutrients. It’s like baking a chocolate layer cake one layer at a time.”
Atala said he was attracted to Wake Forest, in part, because of the Piedmont Triad Research Park. “It’s a great opportunity to be in an area with an emerging park,” he said. “Having the academic environment and the research park is a powerful combination.” ###
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