Prometheus and I: building new body parts from stem cells

18 November 2011

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Professor Martin Birchall (UCL Ear Institute)

Prometheus created life from clay, and within many biologists and surgeons there is a primal desire to do the same from the materials at hand, in an effort to stave off death and disease. Organ transplantation has been one Promethean solution, but a lack of donor organs, ethical and other issues limits the stretch of this technology. We performed the world's first stem cell based organ transplants in an adult and then in a child, and the results suggest a new future for organ replacement. The road will be a long one and raising the funds for the journey and managing expectations in the meantime are challenges. However, driven by such clinical successes, science is incrementally offering more and more opportunities to provide alternatives to and extend the scope of transplantation. A second Promethean myth has him punished for giving fire to man by being chained to a rock and having his liver pecked out by an eagle daily for eternity. In between, however, liver and man regenerate, and this reminds us that ultimately an understanding of the innate properties of tissues and organs to heal themselves may obviate the need for organ replacement altogether.

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