Scientists who grow body parts in labs have reached two new milestones, creating normally functioning vaginas for four young women and new nostrils for five skin cancer patients.
While the techniques are not ready for widespread use, the two reports published Friday in Lancet show progress in a field that has already produced lab-grown bladders, urethras and windpipes.
The vaginal surgeries were performed on teen-aged girls born with absent or underdeveloped vaginas because of a rare condition called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome. The surgery might also work for women who need vaginal reconstruction because of cancer, trauma or other conditions, researchers say.
The study was conducted by a team from the United States and Mexico, including Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, and doctors from the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City.
The researchers started by taking small genital tissue samples from each girl. More cells from those tissues were grown in a lab and then transferred onto biodegradable, vagina-shaped scaffolds. The structures were then implanted in the girls' bodies, where they continued to grow and make connections with nerves and blood vessels.
Researchers followed the now-grown women for up to eight years before reporting results – and now write that "all patients are sexually active and have functional variables in the normal range for desire or arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and absence of pain."
In a video provided by the Mexican university, one unnamed patient says "I truly feel fortunate, because I'll have a normal life – completely normal."
In the second study, researchers also used patients' own cells to grow new nostril tissue for people who lost parts of their noses to skin cancer. Those patients also are doing well, researchers say.
In both cases, the surgeries could eventually replace operations which rely on tissue from elsewhere on patients' bodies to reconstruct or create new parts – procedures that produce various complications and sometimes unsatisfactory results.
We're not there yet, says an editorial accompanying the studies. Studies in larger groups of patients, followed for longer periods, are needed, write Martin Birchall and Alexander Seifalian of the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, London.
But, they say, "the tissue engineering innovation curve is now arcing upwards."