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Not sci-fi: Researchers work toward post-trauma limb regeneration

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., are working on what they call the next logical frontier: easing the human body into fully repairing and regenerating itself.

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A salamander swims in an aquarium at Mexico City's National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) laboratory June 10, 2009. Scientists are turning to species such as salamanders and lobsters in the hope that their ability to regenerate body parts will one day help human amputees.

Felipe Leon/Reuters/File

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What used to be science fiction – Luke Skywalker's robotic hand, for instance – has now become science fact. So, what's next?

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., are hard at work on what they call the next logical frontier: easing the human body into fully repairing and regenerating itself, even with the most traumatic injuries, such as limb loss.

Institute director Anthony Atala, along with his team of nearly 300 researchers, has pioneered work in growing new human cells, tissues, and organs. In April, the team won a gold Edison Award for two new bioprinters capable of "printing" living cells and biomaterials such as new skin for burn victims.

The human body is constantly regenerating itself, Dr. Atala says.

"These technologies we call regenerative are nothing more than a harnessing of the ability your body already has to regenerate and try to accelerate it at the time of injury or disease," he says.

Everything he and his team are doing, he adds, is already present in the biological systems of the body: The principle exists with such animals as the lobster or salamander, and "all we are trying to do is imitate nature," he says.

One avenue of work undertaken by Atala's team – small-tissue regeneration – has already entered into the treatment of patients. Livers, ear cartilage, and other damaged tissues are being replaced.

For amputees, this means nerves and tissues can be extended to enable a better fit.

If you are able to replace, say, a damaged nerve segment, he says, "you may be able to preserve the limb."

Regenerating the entire limb, however futuristic it may sound, is a far-term goal, Atala says. But right now, the "goal is how to help repair ... to preserve limbs from as much loss as possible."

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