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Regenerative medicine: is the grow-your-own organ era just around the corner?

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What happens if a newt’s leg is cut off? Or a gecko’s tail auto-amputated?

The cells simply multiply to grow back into exactly what was missing. If a flatworm were cut in two, the two halves would both become new flatworms.

Unfortunately for humans, this incredible ability to self-regenerate was lost several branches ago on the evolutionary tree. As such, we definitely don’t have the ability to grow a new leg, or a new heart.

We have to rely on skin grafts and organ transplants, with common risks of rejection, infection and multiple complications. However, according to Professor Mark Birchall and Dr Felicity Mehendale, our regenerative future is just around the corner.

Organ transplants are a logistical nightmare for patients and doctors: long waiting lists; poor quality organs; the risk of a life on debilitating immunosuppressant drugs is often inevitable. But this may all soon change, with the arrival of new technologies that allow stem cells to be grown into organs…

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Emily Burns is a UCL PhD student working in the Structural Biology laboratory at the London Research Institute. When she’s not in the lab, she’s usually getting involved in science outreach programmes, or discussing and writing about all things weird and wonderful. You can follow her on twitter @emilyredhead.

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