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article imageLaboratory-grown penises ready for testing in humans

By JohnThomas Didymus     Oct 7, 2014 in Science
Raleigh - U.S. medical researchers have successfully grown new penises in the laboratory from cultured human cells. They may soon be able to implant them safely on to human patients who are missing the vital organ.
The team's success, which comes after 20 years of research, could have profound implications for men who do not have a penis due to several types of congenital and acquired disorders, including traumatic injury to that part of the body.
The lab-grown penises are now undergoing rigorous testing in the laboratory before testing on human patients. The team says it hopes the penises can be tested on humans within five years.
Although it sounds like science fiction, the technology of growing new organs in the laboratory and implanting them on to animals and humans has been around for some time. The team of scientists and technicians at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, led by Peruvian-born urological surgeon and expert in regenerative medicine, Dr. Anthony Atala, carried out the first successful tests of lab-grown penises on rabbits in 2008.
After implanting 12 male rabbits with penises grown in the laboratory, all rabbits attempted mating with a female. Eight mated and ejaculated successfully and four produced offspring.
The success of the trial indicated to Atala that penises grown in the laboratory could be successfully implanted on to humans. It raised hope that the medical profession would be able to help men who do not have a penis or have lost their penis due to genetic defects and acquired conditions. Men who have undergone surgery to remove their penis due to cancer and soldiers who have suffered injury in combat could also be helped by the procedure.
The technology could help to solve the problem of shortages of donated organs used in transplant surgeries and to lengthen human life by providing a new approach to treating organ failure.
Not surprisingly, the research is being funded by the US Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Military personnel often get injured in that region of the body during combat engagement. It is hoped that the procedure will help in the psychological and physical rehabilitation of men wounded in battle.
The team has successfully implanted other lab-grown organs on to humans, such as a bladder in 2006 and lab-grown vaginas to women in 2005.
Despite previous successes with transplanting large organs, the team ran into problems attempting to grow penises in the lab. The technical difficulties were due not only to the fact that the human penis is much larger than the rabbit's, but also because it has a unique structural complexity and cellular architecture compared with other organs.
The images below show the anatomy of the human penis, consisting of a spongy tissue, the corpus cavernosum, which fills with blood to cause an erection following appropriate neurophysiological and psychological stimulation.
The team developed a method which involved first obtaining a scaffold structure. The scaffold structure was obtained by immersing a donor penis in an enzyme detergent which sloughed off the cells, leaving a penis-shaped collagen framework.The collagen framework is comparable to the steel framework of a building when the concrete is removed.
Arteries and structures of the penis
Arteries and structures of the penis
The scaffold was then seeded with cells obtained from tissues salvaged from the penis of the patient and cultured in the laboratory.
The team also used the scaffolding technique to grow a new bladder in 1999. The bladder was successfully implanted on to a human. Four teenagers with a rare congenital disorder in which the female reproductive tract, including the uterus and the vagina, is poorly developed or missing, received new vaginas grown in the lab in 2005.
The team says it has grown about six human penises in the laboratory. The lab-grown penises are now undergoing rigorous testing to meet the safety standards of the US Food and Drug Administration. According to Atala, the penises are being tested to ascertain that they would be able to withstand the ordinary rigors of everyday use on a human patient. They are also being tested to ascertain their structural integrity at the cellular level and their physiological serviceability.
Successful testing of the lab-grown penises and implantation on to humans will mark a major improvement in the options the medical profession currently provides for men in need of help. The most commonly used method since 1970s involved furnishing male patients with a prosthesis made partly from skin and muscle tissues obtained from other parts of the patient's body.
A pliable rod or inflatable synthetic material was placed in the structure. In the case of an inflatable rod, the patient was provided with a saline pump in the scrotum which could be used to inflate the penile prosthesis for the purpose of sexual intercourse.
A more recent technology involves obtaining a donor penis and transplanting the organ to another person in need. As with other types of organ transplants, the procedure is fraught with risks. Besides the psychological discomfort of wearing another person's penis, the patient's body could reject the strange organ through an immunological reaction. The procedure is also further complicated by the fact that drugs which can be used to suppress immunological reaction can have serious side-effects.
The new method which involves growing new penises from tissues donated by the patient could overcome the physical awkwardness of penile prosthesis and the psychological issues associated with transplanting a donor organ.
It is still uncertain whether men who receive implants of lab-grown penis will be able to obtain erections and experience normal sensations of sexual stimulation. But the team’s experience with rabbits gives hope.
According to Atala, the team is interested in growing entire penises as well as portions of it to replace missing or damaged parts in human patients.
Growing portions of the penis could prove useful for treating problems associated with erectile dysfunction in men. Many cases of erectile dysfunction are caused by damage to vital tissues as a result of several medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and atherosclerotic diseases of old age. These conditions often involve degeneration of the spongy tissues which fill with blood through a fine network of vessels during erection and are thus essential for normal erectile function.
However, the breakthrough has some limitations. Because the cells cultured and grown into new penises are taken from parts of the patient’s penis, or its stub after an accident, the procedure cannot be used for the purpose of female-to-male sex reassignment.
But it could be used to help male children born with defective genitalia.
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