Wounds heal themselves – but slowly, over time. Lizards regrow their tails – but we’re not lizards. And, while the Star Trek days of running nifty devices over our flesh and watching it heal in real time may certainly lie in our future, those days are not here yet.

Yet, neither are they as far off as you might think. In fact, regenerative medicine – the branch of science dealing essentially with the body’s ability to replace lost body parts and function – is the current trend, a field that is growing substantially every year. That leads to the question…Is it just a trend, or is it the true future of medicine?

Let’s explore that question.


What Is Regenerative Medicine?

According to Nature, it is “the branch of medicine that develops methods to regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs or tissues. Regenerative medicine includes the generation and use of therapeutic stem cells, tissue engineering and the production of artificial organs.”

The McGowan Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center further points out that it is a relatively new field that brings together experts in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, genetics, medicine, robotics, and other fields to find solutions to some of the most challenging medical problems faced by humankind.”

Its main goal is to heal body parts that otherwise couldn’t be healed by regrowing them, repairing tissues that are typically unable to repair themselves effectively, and fight the till-now unfightable, such as auto-immune diseases and a range of congenital conditions (discussed in greater detail below).


What Does It Offer That Current Medical Approach Does Not?

You might think of the body as a machine, with “parts” that can be replaced. The trouble is, we really aren’t very good at replacing them yet. Up until now, we have relied upon the body to heal itself, wherever possible. We can aid it in healing by boosting the immune system or patching body parts together, but sometimes the body simply isn’t up to the task. Perhaps an organ is too damaged to function any more, or we can’t fight disease effectively enough to keep it from attacking tissues.

The main difference, points out the McGowan Institute, is that we currently focus on treating symptoms. While modern medicine is a leaps-and-bounds improvement over medicinal approaches in former centuries, it still falls short because it essentially relies on our natural rate and limits of healing.

This new form of medicine does not. Instead, it can take over the function of an organ completely through, say, growing a new one or installing partially robotic parts. We can substantially accelerate the natural healing process by giving the body a “map” onto which to generate new tissue. Or we can leverage stem cell therapies to regrow a huge variety of cells that the body ordinarily cannot replace. Let’s discuss each of these modalities further.


Regenerative Medicinal Approaches

A common question is what exactly the regenerative approach can heal, and the answer is a simple: Nearly everything. Eventually, of course. If you take a look at the following therapies, it becomes obvious what a huge wealth of possibilities exist.

Stem Cell Therapy: Stem cells, which may be gathered from a variety of tissues, including blood, skin and organs, can be reverse engineered to a state in which they can produce almost any type of cell, allowing the regrowth of a huge range of tissues and organs. You can read more in our article, How Does Stem Cell Work?

Tissue Engineering and Biomaterials: By inserting engineered tissue into sites of damage, physicians give the body a scaffold onto which to regrow new tissue where it otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Platelet Rich Plasma: Platelet rich plasma is a solution that concentrates blood platelets by removing red blood cells, leaving behind platelets, which contain a huge number of growth factors used to prompt tissue regrowth.

Prolotherapy: Short for proliferation therapy, this is a medicinal approach involving injections at the site of injury that stimulate the body’s own natural healing process, prompting regeneration of damaged or depleted tissues.

Together these therapies have applications for cancer, diabetes, HIV and AIDS, congenital conditions, traumatic injuries, and a wide variety of other diseases.


So … The Way of the Future?

As Federica Colombo, et al, point out in their Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure study entitled Regenerative medicine: Clinical applications and future perspectives, “RM has achieved great successes, but … the crucial point of this revolution is represented by the appropriate and valid translation from bench to bedside.” In other words, while it looks great in the lab, it’s still very much in its infancy within the halls of hospitals and clinics.

Does that bar it from the “future of medicine” title? Unlikely. In fact, point out Angelo S. Mao and David J. Mooney in Regenerative medicine: Current therapies and future directions, “Since the inception of the field several decades ago, a number of therapies … have received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and are now commercially available.”

Owing to its widespread applications and potential, we can reasonably expect it to play a larger and larger role in the healing and health of humans worldwide.

As with any form of medical treatment, you should consult with your physician before embarking on any treatment plan. The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be deemed accurate for the purposes of diagnosing your particular medical condition.

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