A just-published article in Nature Nanotechnology represents a potential breakthrough in the field of tissue engineering, “the practice of combining scaffolds, cells, and biologically active molecules into functional tissues.”
It sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel — a microchip that rescues injured or failing organs.
The device is only about the size of a cufflink, but what it could represent is enormous. In a laboratory at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, researchers demonstrated how it reprograms cells.
The chip is simply placed on an injured part of the body and a small electrical current is applied.
What happens then is that it delivers a cargo of “reprogramming factors” directly into the cytoplasm of skin cells, turning them into other types of cell, as required.
Moreover, the programming appears to spread, “possibly via dispatch of extracellular vesicles (EVs) rich in target gene cDNAs/mRNAs (Fig. 1h,i)16, among other plausible mechanisms17.” (from the original article).
The fact that they’re still trying to discern exactly how the programming spreads shows that it’s far from ready for use on humans, since they’ll need to understand and be able to control the “reprogramming stimuli propagation” before using it on humans. Not to mention, of course, coming up with the needed programming itself, which will probably be specific to each individual patient.
But with this method, research on reprogramming cells will be sped up, and once we know how to reprogram cells, as well as designing and implanting the necessary scaffolding, re-growing organs and nerve connections on demand will become routine medicine.
Last night, when I first became aware of this advance, I suggested 30–40 years before this comes about. Having looked into it more this morning, in view of my own (amateur) understanding of development and cellular computation and communication, I’m revising my estimate: more like 20–30 years.