Here, Real Health talks with Anthony Atala, MD, the W.H. Boyce Professor and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. He is one of the leading researchers in the field of regenerative medicine.

What’s the difference between growing an organ and regenerating one?

It’s interesting. There is a little bit of a difference because humans regenerate themselves all the time. For example, your skin turns over about every 7 days, so your body is constantly regenerating. That’s a little bit different than actually creating an organ that you put back into the body, which is not only regenerating, it’s really regenerative—a regenerative process if you really want to be technical.

Currently, what advances have taken place in the field of regenerative medicine?

There have been a lot of changes, a lot of advances in terms of learning more the potential of the cells. We’ve learned a lot about how cells really control themselves, and how they end up becoming different cell types, so a lot has happened in the last few years in terms of cell biology. So we now understand more clearly. We understand the mechanisms behind cells and they can be manipulated more in terms of what they need to be doing so that we can use them adequately for therapies in patients.

What are the biggest challenges and difficulties with current techniques that are used to regenerate organs?

The current challenges are still in the area of solid organs. Basically, we divide organs between flat surface, such as skin, and tubular structures. They’re all complex, but the least complex are flat surface, such as skin. Tubular structures are at the next level of complexity, such as blood vessels. They have more cell types. Then, the third level of complexity are hollow organs, such as the stomach or the bladder. Finally, the most complex organs are the solid organs, such as the heart, the liver, the kidney.

Doctors are able to take a piece of a diseased organ and generate a new organ from it. But if the organ is diseased, how is that possible?

Basically, even with an organ that’s diseased, there are cells that are still normal. For example, even if you have an organ with cancer, there’s an area of the organ that has the cancer and an area of the organ that doesn’t. Or if you have an injured organ, like if there’s a car accident, there’s an area of the organ that’s injured by the accident, but there’s tissue that’s still viable, and undamaged. For the most part, you can take cells from the same organ, grow them and create a new organ. This is the case for most everything, except for genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy. But, thankfully, that’s less than one percent of all patients.

A salamander is able to regenerate its limbs. In the future of regenerative medicine, would that be possible for human beings?

That’s way into the future. I mean, certainly we use a salamander as a model because salamanders can regenerate their limbs—so can starfish, so can crabs and lobsters in the ocean—there are many, many animals that regenerate. But, basically, that’s not the case with mammals and primates, and that’s not the case with other species. And so the question is, how can you learn from those models. Certainly, it’s something that inspires us a little bit over time. But it’s not within reality at this point.

How are 3-D printers being used to help regenerate organs?

There have been a lot of advances in 3-D printing. We’ve built better printers; they’re more advanced and, technologically, way ahead of where they were. But still we have not yet implanted a printed tissue into a patient at this point. Basically, a printer is just a tool to scale up the technology. You still have to learn to do it by hand before you give the information to the printer. We’ve engineered tissues that we have put into patients that were made by hand. Now, we are trying to apply those same strategies to implant the same tissues into patients by using 3-D printing.