Medical Center Research Included Among Top Breakthroughs of Year

December 19, 2006

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Two research projects at Wake Forest University School of Medicine have been named top breakthroughs of the year by national science magazines. Anthony Atala, M.D., has been honored for advances in tissue engineering and Lawrence Rudel, Ph.D., for his research into the danger of trans-fatty acids in foods.

The January 2007 issue of Discover magazine names Atala’s work as the No. 2 science story of the year and ranks Rudel’s research as No. 14. In addition, Atala was also recently honored by both Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines.

Earlier this year, Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, announced success implanting laboratory-grown bladders in children and teenagers with spina bifida.

Atala and colleagues at the institute are working to grow more than 20 different tissues and organs, including blood vessels and hearts. Their ultimate goal is to help solve the shortage of donated organs available for transplantation.

In animal studies, Rudel found that the “apple” body shape that increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease may be accelerated by eating trans fat such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil used in fryers at fast-food chains, doughnut shops, and in commercially made cookies and crackers.

Rudel and colleagues found that a diet rich in trans fat causes a redistribution of fat tissue into the abdomen and led to a higher body weight even when the total dietary calories were controlled. In the study, male monkeys fed a western-style diet that contained trans fat had a 7.2 percent increase in body weight, compared to an insignificant 1.8 percent increase in monkeys that ate monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.

Correlated with the fat redistribution were early signs of type II diabetes including insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar. It appeared as if trans fatty acids are important contributors to the development of metabolic syndrome, the major disease epidemic of our time, said Rudel.

Since Jan. 1, the FDA has required the amount of trans fat to be listed in the nutrition facts panel on all foods. But the restaurant industry is exempt. Several states, however, are currently considering bans on trans fats in restaurants.

Discover, a science magazine for the layperson, has a circulation of 873,000. It includes one-page articles on each of the Wake Forest advances

Popular Science and Popular Mechanics have circulations of 1.5 million and 1.2 million respectively. Atala and Alan Retic, M.D., his colleague from Harvard Medical School, received one of eight “Breakthrough Innovator Awards” from Popular Mechanics. Atala began the bladder research when he was at Harvard.

“To receive a Breakthrough Award, an advance has to solve problems, expand horizons or engage the imagination of millions – it really has to matter,” according to Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief James Meigs.

Popular Science, which focuses on cutting-edge science and technology, honored Atala in its “Best of What’s New” December issue with a Grand Award in the “health” category.

“Atala and his colleagues have created bladders from scratch, clearing one of the biggest hurdles in tissue engineering: growing a real human organ in the lab and proving that it works,” says the magazine.”

Atala implanted the first bladders grown from patients’ own cells in 1999. Earlier this year, he reported in the medical journal The Lancet the long-term success in seven children with spina bifida who had the surgery. The main goal of the surgery was to reduce pressures inside the bladder to preserve the kidneys. In addition, urinary incontinence, which was a problem before the surgery, improved in all patients.

Because the bladders were made from patient’s own cells, there were not problems with organ rejection.


Media Contacts: Karen Richardson,, 336-716-4453, or Shannon Koontz,, at 336-716-4587.

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. Wake Forest University School of Medicine ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.

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