Grow your own

Wake Forest spent millions to recruit Tony Atala, hoping to reap a fortune from his research in cultivating body parts.

Tony Atala is on the hot seat, though he’s fielding easy questions. He struggles to recall he’s 46, was born in South America and grew up mostly in Boca Raton, Fla. Asked when he got his bachelor’s from the University of Miami, he tilts his eyes toward a spot near where the ceiling meets a wall. “I got a bachelor’s there in, uh, uh — I forget the year, but it’s on my CV.”

Then he laughs. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Just like that. It’s loud. You can hear each ha. He’s asked what he majored in. “It was in, uh, uh, well, it was ... ” Again with the ha-ha-has. “I never think about the past. The only reason I can tell you my age is because my wife, we were talking about how old I am this weekend. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know. I would actually have to stop and figure it out.”

He can be excused for doing poorly on his history exam. As director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and chair of the urology department at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, he focuses on the present — and future. “Of the things that matter, he is in complete control of what’s going on,” says Alan Russell, president of the Baltimore-based Tissue Engineering Society International and director of McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

That’s good, because a lot is riding on what’s going on in Atala’s lab. Wake officials won’t say how much they spent to lure him from Harvard Medical School, only that it was several million dollars. That includes building 30,000 square feet of lab space at Piedmont Triad Research Park, which should be ready this fall. He moved to Winston-Salem in January 2004 with a team of 20, has boosted that number to 60 and expects it to grow to 130.

Why the big bucks? The absent-minded professor has thrust Wake into a race to grow healthy human organs from diseased ones. If he’s successful, you’ll be able to donate a patch of cells smaller than a postage stamp and have someone grow a spare part for you within six weeks. No more years of waiting on organ-donor lists. No more risk of the body rejecting an incompatible part. In clinical trials, Atala has replaced more than 100 faulty human urethras. He has created blood vessels, muscle, bladders, wombs and vaginas that have been tested in animals. “What he’s doing is gee-whiz stuff,” Russell says. “There are other people who are using tissue engineering clinically in the United States, but I don’t think any are as prolific or as significant as Tony.”

As sexy as that sounds, Wake didn’t recruit him just to look good. It expects a return on the investment, says Richard Dean, CEO of Wake Forest University Health Sciences. Atala’s work has led to more than 150 patent applications and five spinoffs. Wake has submitted 15 patent applications based on his research, but his economic impact won’t be limited to patent licenses. King of Prussia, Pa.-based Tengion, which develops cell tissue and has licensed some of Atala’s inventions, is considering a $9 million laboratory in Winston-Salem. It would employ about 30 at salaries averaging $70,000.

Atala’s team also is experimenting with amniotic-fluid stem cells, which doesn’t require destruction of embryos, and Dean says other aspects of his research could lead to medicines that produce fewer side effects. But it’s his work on growing organs that gets most of the attention.

Here’s how a replacement bladder is created: A doctor biopsies the faulty organ, taking healthy young cells from an outer muscle and a protective inner lining. Cells from each layer are put in separate plastic dishes with nutrients for cell reproduction, then stored in an incubator. After four or five weeks, there are enough cells to spread on a bladder mold made of biodegradable polymers — one layer inside and one outside. The seeded mold is put into an incubator so cells can continue reproducing and bonding to one another. “The cells are programmed to do what they need to do genetically, so they will layer like they’re supposed to,” Atala says. About a week later, the mold is ready to implant. It acts as an artificial bladder while the new organ grows and gradually takes over.

The process was developed by a guy who didn’t decide to become a doctor until college and didn’t want to do research when he finished his residency at the University of Louisville, where he had earned his medical degree in 1985. His wife and a professor talked him into doing research. (For the record, Atala received his bachelor’s in psychology in 1984, several years after he started medical school.) He got the idea for engineering organs while reading about skin grafts. “It was back in 1990. That’s an easy year to remember because that’s when I started this. Don’t ask me when I did anything else.” Then he laughs.

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